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Sarah Wollaston to fight for health committee chairmanship

Independent-minded Tory MP to run for post.

Conservative MP for Totnes Sarah Wollaston
Conservative MP for Totnes Sarah Wollaston

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.