UK Politics

Political lives: John Healey on the NHS bill and being a minister

John Healey

He's not quite the fifth Beatle, but John Healey's decision to step down at the height of the campaign against the NHS bill seemed an unusual one in a world where being in the political spotlight is often a career goal.

"Allowing others to claim credit to get results."

It is not the sort of argument you often hear from politicians, but that's what John Healey said in his big party conference speech a few days before stepping down as shadow health secretary in October.

It's also not necessarily an argument that's going to get you to the top at Westminster, but the 52-year-old Labour backbencher seems happy with his tactics and decision.

It may seem hard to imagine now, but when he was propelled into the job after Ed Miliband's election as Labour leader in September 2010 the medical colleges and most NHS staff representatives all seemed rather welcoming towards what became the Health and Social Care Bill.

"Almost alone, in the late autumn of 2010 I was making the argument about how far reaching these changes were and how this was a programme for a decade not for a one-term parliament," he says.

"It took a lot of work behind the scenes. A large part of my time in the 12 months in the job was working to make sure the patients groups, the professional groups, the NHS experts saw behind what the government were arguing was their aim, looked hard at the legislation and stopped giving the government the benefit of the doubt.

"When you're in opposition, it's only when you're able to to build an alliance of other voices who are saying the same things as you and make the same arguments as you that you start to build up the pressure on government."

That's what happened in the run-up to the "pause" in the legislation last Easter, he says. Although he says the whole process of meetings and briefing had to be repeated to counter the view the pause had led to fundamental changes.

'It's part of the reality of being in opposition'

It's been an ever more controversial passage for the proposed changes to the NHS in England since then, with medics, nurses and other NHS staff increasingly outspoken in their opposition to the bill.

Rebel Lib Dems in the House of Lords have gained many of the headlines for challenging the bill, while Mr Healey's Labour successor Andy Burnham has been popping up daily on TV and radio with his "kill the bill" campaign.

Mr Healey, who chose to step down to have more time to spend at home before his teenage son finishes school, doesn't seem worried about missing out: "You get the results but you don't get the credit. It's a part of the reality of being - particularly in the early days - in opposition."

That sort of attitude may be one of the reasons the South Yorkshire MP has managed to spend more than a decade in the frontline of politics, without becoming a politician likely to be identified in one of those kerbside "put a name to the face" quizzes beloved of TV editors.

But you don't get to spend that long at the heart of the Blair/Brown - more the Brown side really - government without being a tribal political operator, and Healey's generosity with sharing credit doesn't extend to rival parties' leaders.

"David Cameron made his most personal promises on the NHS. On each and every one of them he's now breaking them. He won't recover. He seriously misjudged what they were (the NHS changes proposed) the impact and what the public reaction was likely to be."

Meanwhile Nick Clegg "is largely a spent political force. What the Lib Dems do with their leader is entirely up to them but the Liberal Democrats' posturing now is not going to absolve them of any blame if things go wrong".

While he applauds Mr Burnham's campaign to get the bill dropped, Healey expects it to get through Parliament, but, he warns, "the public won't forgive and forget that".

Backed a snap election

What happens next, he thinks, is that the government will minimise changes ahead of the next election, with the Conservatives then looking to come back with a majority government able to "put the accelerator to the floor to do long term what this reform plan is for".

So it sounds like, as Ed Miliband recently said, the NHS is set to take centre stage at the next election.

Talking of elections, Mr Healey - who has his tennis racquet handy in his office ready for a forthcoming doubles match with some parliamentary colleagues - was one of those who wanted Gordon Brown to go for a snap election after taking over from Tony Blair in 2007.

"I think it would have given Gordon his own electoral mandate and greater strength."

Mr Brown obviously believed in his former parliamentary bag carrier's ability to get things done - appointing him as floods recovery minister when the country faced the worst deluges in modern times.

But on the snap election, Mr Healey says that people at the time were using the wrong yardstick to judge Labour's performance. "The people who were cautious were wanting to believe Labour could win a bigger majority than Labour had at the time." The issue to him was whether Labour could win a majority. "I believe we could have done, but who knows."

Now, he says, people are again using the wrong yardstick, comparing Labour's poll performance with the run-up to the 1997 landslide. He says no-one needs a three-figure majority to govern. Any majority would do.

"People who point the finger at Ed Miliband are mistaken. Any Labour leader would find themselves in a similar position. In these early months after the election one of the last voices anyone's interested in is Labour's. People have voted us out of government, we have a new government and people are prepared to, in many cases, wait and see."

A charity worker and campaigner before being elected, Healey has now seen most sides of the Westminster process.

He says that being in government is "more messy with less of the levers" of power than you might have imagined.

"To begin with, as a minister, you make announcements and assume things happen. And they don't and you learn pretty fast that if you want important things to happen or to change you have to force and follow them through. In the broader view, that might be a good thing - government has its limits."

'We stepped in'

So how does he think the New Labour government will be remembered?

"Time will give us a clearer view. It will change as people are able to make their own comparison after a few years of the Tories and the Liberals."

He sees the last Labour government in two parts. The ten years of unprecedented economic growth when, as he puts it, debt and the deficit were cut and schools and hospitals built.

But that period "has been eclipsed by the turmoil of the global economic crisis and downturn that followed". This might be because, as he put it in a recent email exchange on the Politicshome website, Labour were more interested in trying to get the UK out of recession than in "what we were saying".

In that same email exchange he accepts Labour have not won the political battle over their record, but insists that the deficit soaring and debt growing was not the result of the government having done something wrong.

Instead, he says, it is "what governments do". To back it up he points out he was the Treasury minister who signed the cheque in 2006 to finally pay off the debt the UK incurred during the Second World War.

But "you can't be in government for many years without making mistakes" and accepting those errors makes the party stronger, he says, although public apologies "are a matter of political taste".

He adds: "We become weak if we lose sight of what we did well and what was important and successful - not just in the first ten years. There were important things that we were able to do despite the difficulties of the global financial collapse. We stepped in. It was a demonstration of the power of intelligent active government."

He cites his work as housing minister, building more affordable homes and the government's record in keeping repossessions at half the level of the 1990s recession.

A front bench return?

That was another job where Mr Healey failed to gain much public recognition, but his efforts seem to have been appreciated inside his party.

A few months after the 2010 election defeat he surprised many in Westminster when he came second out of 49 in a ballot of Labour MPs on who should be in the shadow cabinet.

A year later the rules were changed and Ed Miliband was free to select his own shadow cabinet members. With widespread speculation that a higher profile figure was wanted in the job, the assumption many hold is that is why Mr Healey decided to jump.

He says that was not the case, that he'd spoken to the Labour leader long before the reshuffle about his plans. Looking back now it is possible to believe he knew he was off when he delivered that party conference speech last year.

It was, as he puts it, a big decision, but he has no regrets, being able to watch his son's rugby matches and do things like head north to attend a constituency beer festival on a midweek evening - while also having time to play that game of tennis in SW1.

He certainly sounds and looks like he's enjoying life at the moment and says he intends to be around at Westminster "for a lot longer".

The reason he gave for stepping down suggests he'd be ready for a return to the frontline in a couple of years.

"Who knows?," he says. "You step down and sometimes there's no way back - politics is unpredictable."