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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". 

Stephen Dorrell. Photo: NHS Confederation/Flickr
Health select committee chair Stephen Dorrell is to stand down immediately. Photo: NHS Confederation/Flickr

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".