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Burnham thinks big

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With the UK economy showing signs of modest recovery, Labour is again on the back foot.

Health reporting HSJ and LGC logo

Or it would be if many of us had ever detected it being on the front foot since Gordon Brown’s election defeat in 2010 and the protracted process that led to his replacement by the younger Miliband brother, Ed.

But where does this leave Andy Burnham as his party’s promised autumn reshuffle looms? What was that Guardian interview − which I’ll return to later − telling Ed Miliband to pull his socks up all about?

The Conservatives, who have been in muddles of their own this summer (do they want to attract skilled immigrants like doctors and nurses or drive them to Canada?), are also in a muddle over Burnham.

A few weeks ago it was possible to detect a campaign − one not joined by the Lib Dems − to blame his tenure as health secretary for failing to address the horrors then being exposed in Mid Staffordshire. As well as distracting attention from the problems of the Lansley reforms, the aim was to drive Handy Andy out of the shadow health post.

Less baggage

Since Burnham was the minister who first brought in Robert Francis QC (currently endorsing Don Berwick’s improvement plans) to investigate Mid Staffs, that seemed a foolish, doomed tactic and was probably nothing to do with Jeremy Hunt’s office.

I now read gossip in the Tory Spectator magazine that Conservative MPs are “happy with him in post”, albeit coupled with speculation that he fears being shuffled out of health by Miliband − the man he challenged for the top job in 2010.

‘Burnham has been changed by his run for leadership; he can generate headlines; and he expects his leader to endorse his integration plan’

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” replied a Labour source on Twitter. That sounds more likely. You may dimly recall that Burnham, still only 43, was briefly moved to education in 2010, then moved back a year later when John Healey dropped out for family reasons.

Ed Balls (also moved) was already back as shadow chancellor. Burnham, who has far less baggage to dump than Balls, was delighted to be back. He has since remained conspicuous − not always easy for opposition politicians, even when the Lansley-Hunt team has been in deep doo-doo.

Big ideas

You don’t always have to agree with Burnham to accept that he knows his subject and has a likeable public tone of voice − thoughtful, reasonable, a man of the people even. Lancashire people at that.

Sometimes his attacks attract a “but I acted using Labour legislation” response from Hunt. Sometimes he is OTT.

But he’s often spot on and is capable of what he calls “big thoughts” on Labour’s policy needs. Though it remains light on key details, integration of health and social care is one such idea.

‘At a time when backbench malcontents are badmouthing the leader and the August news void provides an amplifier, there are risks in speaking up’

That issue must have been part of the calculation that prompted last weekend’s Guardian interview with Decca Aitkenhead: to remind the two Eds that this “medium sized beast” − as one commentator calls shadow ministers − is now a much more confident beast. Burnham has been changed by his run for leadership; he can generate headlines; and he expects his leader to cost and endorse his integration plan as official policy − one that is humane and far sighted as society ages.

Burnham will stay

Balls, a chip off the Brown block, has been stroppy over it.

On a personal level, Burnham wants to keep his job and expects to do so. I agree.

In suggesting Labour needs to “shout louder” and have clearer, gimmick free policies like his by next spring or risk losing the general election in 2015, he surely states the obvious.

At a time when backbench malcontents are badmouthing the leader and the August news void provides an amplifier, there are risks in speaking up.

But Handy Andy is still growing as a politician. If you hold any shares, don’t sell now.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian

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