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10 August 2015

Andy Burnham seems like a nice bloke – but I haven’t a clue what he stands for

Andy Burnham's guiding principle seems to be that Andy Burnham should be leader of the Labour party, says Jonn Elledge.

By Jonn Elledge

I’ve never met Andy Burnham. I’ve only spoken to him once, six years ago, when I was a reporter and he was the newly appointed health secretary, then still widely seen as a Blairite. I don’t remember much of that phone interview, but I clearly made quite an impact on him, as he later had a meeting with my colleague Tom and addressed him using my name throughout.

There are many people in public life who, whatever their politics, have reputations for being, basically, awful humans. Burnham isn’t one of them. He is, by all accounts, unfailingly pleasant and courteous to his colleagues, his staff and everyone he comes across. The more I learn of him, the more he seems to be that rarest of things in politics, the genuinely nice man.

And yet, I would not trust him as far as I could throw an obese hippo (an animal, it should be said, that is far less slippery than Burnham himself). For all the horrors of the Labour leadership race, I am quietly delighted to see his bid quietly fade into irrelevance.

Until that race began, Burnham clearly had the most prominent public profile of the main contenders. As shadow health secretary he’d been a big figure on Ed Miliband’s frontbench, making a series of blistering attacks on government health policy. In July 2014, he called for an end to NHS privatisation. In Janaury 2015, he warned that the coalition was pursuing “a toxic mixture of cuts and privatisation”. Labour supporters may have been confused about what the party stood for under Ed Miliband – but one thing they were clear on was that Andy Burnham was opposed to NHS privatisation.

There was only one problem with this. Only one NHS hospital, Hinchingbrooke, has ever been handed over to a private provider, which then ran it for a profit (as good a definition of “NHS privatisation” as any). The process that led to this arrangement began in July 2009. The health secretary at the time was one Andy Burnham.

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The man who in opposition has made his name opposing NHS privatisation is the only health secretary ever to privatise an NHS hospital.

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Burnham’s legion of supporters, of whom the most prominent, worryingly, is Dr Eoin Clarke, respond to this point by noting that the deal wasn’t actually signed until November 2011. They note, too, that the Hinchingbrooke process began just weeks after Burnham came to the office, and that his signature policy as health secretary was to change the terms of the internal market so that NHS organisation became the “preferred provider” of services.

These things are true – but pointing them out feels like nitpicking the letter of the law to excuse a breach of its spirit. The process started on Burnham’s watch, and by the time he left office there were no NHS providers left in the race. There is no reading of events in which he isn’t largely responsible for the privatisation of Hinchingbrooke Hospital.

Even if he was bitterly opposed to privatisation, and was quietly raging against it throughout, there are no points in politics for inner beauty: what you do in office is de facto your policy. The absolute best case scenario here is that a man who has always been opposed to NHS privatisation wasn’t strong enough to stop it, even when he was the secretary of state for health. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for his leadership ambitions.

Burnham has given us no reason to think that this the right reading of events, however. He has never, best I can tell, come up with a way of rationalising his actions as health secretary against his policies as shadow health secretary. He’s addressed the contradiction by pretending that there isn’t one. His entire leadership campaign has been built on the assumption that nobody will bother to Google what he was up to in 2009.

If this was a one off, it might be possible to excuse it, but this air of slipperiness follows Burnham like a bad smell. In June he called on the Labour party to vote against the government’s welfare bill, pledged to vote against it, then abstained. His chosen line of attack against the George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” policy is to sneeringly point out that the north is not, currently, a powerhouse, which is true, but also the entire point of the exercise.

He talks endlessly about not being from inside the Westminster Bubble. But since he’s a Cambridge graduate who became a parliamentary researcher at the age of 24, this just looks like code for “I have a northern accent”. Time and again, Burnham’s actions are those of a man who assumes the rest of us are fools.

Slipperiness is not always a bad quality in a politician. Harold Wilson won four general elections, and left office at a time of his own choosing; and it is surely better to u-turn than to crash headfirst into a wall. So perhaps Burnham’s problem isn’t slipperiness, per se. Perhaps it’s that he’s so appallingly obvious about it.

Or perhaps it’s that there’s no sense that all this ducking and diving is serving some greater mission. Burnham brings to mind the quote widely attributed to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a leading figure in France’s 1848 revolution: “There go my people. I must find out where they are going, so I can lead them.”

I’m sure Andy Burnham is a nice man – decent, intelligent, humane. But the one solid principle he seems to have is that the leader of the Labour party should be Andy Burnham. It’s not enough. That is why he will shortly lose another Labour leadership election.