Health select committee chair Stephen Dorrell is to stand down immediately. Photo: NHS Confederation/Flickr
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Why has Stephen Dorrell stood down as health select committee chair?

The Conservative MP is said to want to contribute to the healthcare debate "from a less overtly political position". 

In a move that even his committee's media team apparently hadn't heard about, Stephen Dorrell is to resign from the health select committee chairmanship with immediate effect.

The Conservative MP for Charnwood has chaired the committee since 2010. His resignation was announced by committee member Sarah Wollaston on Twitter this morning:

I've contacted his office, but the reason for his move still hasn't been officially disclosed. The BBC's health correspondent Branwen Jeffreys is reporting that Dorrell wishes to contribute to the future healthcare debate "from a less overtly political position". And the BBC's Hugh Pym has tweeted that Dorrell says he's stepping down "because the pre-election period makes it difficult to focus on long term issues". We're unlikely to hear the official announcement until tomorrow.

Wollaston tells me that his decision was a complete surprise, and came to her "out of the blue." She says he'll be "sorely missed" and calls him "a very effective chair", recalling him saying in the first meeting he chaired how he'd like his committee to "walk towards the sound of gunfire." She adds that he'd "not come into it as someone who's always going to follow the government line; he trod the balance very carefully."

But there are rumours that Dorrell, 62, who served as health secretary under John Major and knows the brief thoroughly, may be standing down to prepare for the next Tory reshuffle. It could be a wise move for David Cameron to bring him back into the government fold, despite the fact that Dorrell has been steadfastly critical of the NHS reforms. Andrew Lansley, the health secretary who put the restructuring plans in motion, has long since been reshuffled into the ceremonial obscurity of the Leader of the House of Commons job. So if the PM still wants to distance his frontbench from the dirt thrown between doctors and decision-makers over the reforms, Dorrell would be a smart hire. One insider tells me that Dorrell's wish to approach the healthcare debate from a "less overtly political position" could be "code for helping to shape policy", so it may be on the cards.

Although he voted the controversial NHS reforms through, Dorrell dismissed the debate as "grotesquely overstated on both sides". He argued that efficiency savings in the health service were more pressing than the Health and Social Care Bill, and that the subject of NHS reform had "lost touch with reality".

He also broke away from the coalition narrative that the Labour Party had wrecked the NHS and the current administration was picking up the pieces. When I interviewed him in March last year during the Mid-Staffs furore for Total Politics, he was markedly apolitical about the state of Britain's healthcare:

One of the intricacies of health politics is that there’s a tendency for successive governments to use rhetoric which implies a division between the parties about healthcare and NHS policy. Whereas, in fact, I think you’d have difficulty putting more than a slip of paper between the positions of the last government and the current government.

I think the thing that’s striking is the consistency between the world under the old management structure and under the new management structure. Nothing has changed in the health service...

So if his reason for standing down is truly for a less political outlook, I doubt his approach to the healthcare debate will change much.

UPDATE

The Health Service Journal has spoken to Dorrell exclusively, and here's what he told them:

I have enjoyed doing the select committee. I believe we have made an important contribution on a cross-party basis to health policy through this parliament. In common with a lot of other people in the health world I am increasingly focused on the challenges facing the health and care system, throughout the life of the next parliament. I’m primarily interested in the challenges facing the health and care system over the next five to ten years and the need for the system to change. These are issues that are better addressed outside the select committee context. 

UPDATE

I've spoken to Dorrell's office, and they say his standing down isn't due to seeking a place in government; though he's "flattered" that it's been mooted as a possibility, it's "not the case".

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.