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6 October 2011

Labour reshuffle: out with the old … then what?

Healey and Denham step down ahead of Ed Miliband's first reshuffle.

By Rafael Behr

Well, there was enough speculation that Ed Miliband was planning to reshuffle the shadow cabinet – now he has to. John Denham and John Healey are stepping down from the business and health portfolios respectively.

Healey’s correspondence with the Labour leader is online here. The declared reason for going — the need to spend more time with family. This isn’t a huge shock (although obviously it is something of a surprise; if we’d known it was about to happen we would have written about it).

I saw a member of the last Labour government recently — now happily ensconced in the private sector — who commented on how tired his former colleagues were, having toiled to the bitter end under Gordon Brown and then struggling to get to grips with opposition. Healey’s name came up as someone whose heart didn’t seem in it anymore.

It is worth adding that he has not been a triumphant foil to the eminently foilable Andrew Lansley. The NHS reform has been an absolutely disaster for the Tories and Labour have landed a few blows.

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But the Lib Dems have also hoovered up a lot of the credit for disrupting Lansley’s plans. As I argued in this week’s magazine Nick Clegg is deliberately trying to squeeze Labour out of the debate on a range of issues, hoping to make it seem as if the interesting arguments, the ones that matter are within the coalition not between the coalition and the opposition. That has worked all to well on the NHS from Labour’s point of view.

There is a fair amount of chatter around Andy Burnham being lined up as a replacement for Healey — he had the health brief in government. But frankly he hasn’t been any more effective against Michael Gove than Healey was against Lansley; less so perhaps. And, over the last few months, I’ve heard some pretty disparaging noises about Burnham’s performance from people around Miliband.

Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow health spokesperson, has impressed a lot of people with her assured grasp of the subject. She has a background in charity and think tank research around health issues, but she was new to parliament in 2010 so it might be a bit brisk to put her in such a high profile brief. Still Ed has said he wants Labour to represent a new generation …

As for John Denham and BIS — we’ll have to wait to find out why he has jumped. He is another veteran of the last government and was an early and loyal backer of Ed for the leadership; perhaps he too was just plain knackered. Perhaps also he found the business brief frustrating when, let’s face it, Labour’s position on growth and the economy is coming from Ed Balls’s office. The shadow chancellor is not famous for sharing.

There is also a lot of talk about other old timers coming back to lend a hand — Alan Johnson and Lord Falconer. But then, there is always a lot of talk ahead of a reshuffle. We’ll find out the truth soon enough.

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