Andy Burnham comes out fighting against Conservative smears

The Tories' attempts to pin the blame for NHS failings on the former health secretary are both politically unwise and unmerited by the facts.

The Conservative spin machine has gone into overdrive ahead of the publication of the Keogh report into failings at 14 NHS trusts in a desperate attempt to pin the blame on the last Labour government. In an abandonment of the consensual approach adopted by David Cameron after the Francis report into Mid-Staffs, when he declared that the government would not "blame the last Secretary of State for Health" or "seek scapegoats", the Tories have taken aim at shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, the man responsible for the NHS from 2009-10, briefing the press over the weekend that his position is now untenable.

In an letter published in today's Telegraph, 10 Conservative MPs, undoubtedly with the tacit encouragement of Downing Street, openly call for his resignation. They write:

It is clear now that the last Labour government oversaw thousands of unnecessary deaths in our NHS Hospitals and failed to expose or confront these care scandals. The patients we represent were betrayed. It would be an outrage if Andy Burnham were ever to return to the role of secretary of state for health.

In response to this declaration of political war, Burnham has come out fighting. Writing in the Telegraph, he points out several inconvenient truths that will almost certainly be lost in the media's coverage of the report today. 

Far from seeking to 'bury bad news', as the Conservatives allege, Burnham notes that "before the last Election, I took action in respect of Basildon and Tameside and after ordering an in-depth review of all hospitals in England, I left in place warnings over five of the 14". In doing so, as less partisan papers reported at the weekend, he overruled health officials determined to keep the failings from the front pages. 

Burnham goes on to point out that the criteria for inclusion in the Keogh report "was hospitals with a high mortality ratio in 2011 and 2012 – not 2005" (after Labour had left office, in other words) and that "six of the 14 now have a higher mortality rate than in the last year of the last Government."

In addition, he notes that there has been "a major deterioration" in A&E waiting times at the hospitals in question, with all 14 in breach of the government’s 4-hour A&E target, and "severe cuts to staffing levels", identified by the Francis report as one of the main causes of the Stafford scandal. 

With the Tories trailing Labour by 30 points on the NHS, their desire to hold the last government responsible for any failings, as they done so successfully in the case of the economy, is understandable. But not only is it one they would be wise to resist, as Rachel Sylvester argues in today's Times (the public would rather politicians spent their fixing the problems with the NHS than arguing over which party is to blame), this line of attack is also entirely unmerited by the facts. If Burnham can derive any consolation from the events of the last 48 hours, it is that this smear campaign will almost certainly backfire. 

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, who served as health secretary from 2009-10. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories