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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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