Conservative MP for Totnes Sarah Wollaston
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Sarah Wollaston to fight for health committee chairmanship

Independent-minded Tory MP to run for post.

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston has declared her intention to stand for the chairmanship of the Commons Health Select Committee.

Her announcement today follows the surprise resignation of Conservative chair Stephen Dorrell two days ago.

Wollaston, Tory MP for Totnes, in effect announced his departure herself, after tweeting “I’m sorry to hear he is standing down as chair with immediate effect” on Tuesday morning, which apparently caught even Dorrell’s media team off guard.

A former GP and health committee member, her background in healthcare stands her in good stead for the committee's top role. So far her only other rival to declare interest in the post is fellow doctor Philip Lee, Tory MP for Bracknell.

While Lee can boast that, as a practising MP, he still has a hand in the health sector, Wollaston sees her independence from the NHS as a boon.

She told me today that while hands-on experience in the NHS is invaluable for a politician looking at health care, that her departure from the sector affords her greater impartiality. She gave up her memberships to the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practioners when she entered Parliament.

She said: "I left my clinical practice completely behind when I came into politics, so I'm not intending to be there representing the medical profession if I were elected. I think you're there to represent the public."

Selected as a parliamentary candidate in an American-style open primary, Wollaston has proven herself an outspoken politician since 2010.

A thorn in the side of David Cameron, she has attacked government failure to address pressing health issues, such as the minimum pricing of alcohol, and jibed the Prime Minister personally. Last year she criticised his inner circle for still being “too white, male, and privileged”.

Given her ability to provoke the Conservative leadership,  Wollaston is likely to prove a popular choice among Labour MPs for chairmanship of the health committee. It is worth pointing out, however, that her independent-mindedness has earnt her genuine respect from all tribes as well.

The role, which demands impartiality, would suit her in many ways, as she has been an vocal critic of crude party politics. She told me she would be “very keen” on the role partially because it eschews “overtly tribal politics” and praised former chair Dorrell for his “consensual style and clear impartiality”.

She said: “Select committees have become so much more effective since the Wright committee reforms [which included the election of committee chairs by the Commons rather selection by the whips], so it’s a job I’d be fascinated to do.

"We need indepth scrutiny of the health service - its finances and operations - now more than ever, having handed back so many powers to NHS England in particular."

Wollaston said that, were she to be elected as health committee chair, among her top priorities would be work on variation in practice across the NHS; mental health care; personalised care; examining outcomes and their use as tools, for example, in early diagnosis; and scaling back tender processes for small contracts where unnecessary.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.