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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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood