Incredible Rise and Rise of Alan Milburn, Man of Many Faces

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Byline: STEPHEN POLLARD

WHETHER Alan Milburn spotted the irony, I doubt very much. At the same time yesterday as the Health Secretary was outlining his plans for the NHS to MPs, Stelios Haji-Ioannou announced that he is to resign as chairman of easyJet.

The airline has now grown so large that its investors feel they want a manager rather than an entrepreneur. For all Mr Haji-Ioannou's skill in setting up easyJet from scratch, he is not seen as the man to steer it further ahead.

EasyJet's turnover is a matter of millions. But this year, Mr Milburn will spend [pound]72.1BILLION of our money on the NHS. By 2007, it will consume [pound]105.6billion.

Yet we are expected to trust that Mr Milburn has the skills to turn the NHS - the largest employer in Europe - from a lumbering, unresponsive dinosaur into a consumer-driven, innovative model of best practice.

Is he really the man for the job? His career so far suggests not: he was once described to me as 'a timeserver who swings with the political wind'.

And nothing he has done in nearly four years as Health Secretary suggests he understands the real problems in the NHS or has any sort of solution to them.

He has never really run anything - or, for that matter, DONE anything.

Brought up in the North East, he studied history at Lancaster University but dropped out of Newcastle University where he was studying for a doctorate ('18th century radicalism in the North East').

He worked for the union movement, in a Marxist bookshop and for North Tyneside Council before being elected to Parliament in 1992 alongside his fellow North-East MP, Stephen Byers.

Just as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown entered the Commons together and operated as a political team, so Messrs Milburn and Byers were also political twins - and similarly obvious high flyers.

But it was Mr Byers who seemed the senior partner and when the gossip turned to talk of who might succeed Tony Blair as leader, his name inevitably cropped up.

Mr Milburn was thought to be 'good on TV'; a serious compliment in a party which, at that time, seemed to consist entirely of aliens, but a double-edged one.

The view was that he was too smooth by half. Mr Byers had the ideas; Mr Milburn the salesman's touch.

But he also had the greatest skill any politician can have: being in the right place at the right time. He took over from Frank Dobson as Health Secretary in 1999 when Labour was barely giving the NHS a second thought.

For this reason, health was considered one of the toughest jobs in government. Waiting lists were long, nurses were leaving in droves and a health scandal seemed to hit the headlines every week.

Mr Milburn could easily have been damaged goods within a couple of years.

But his arrival at Health coincided with Blair and Brown deciding the NHS must become number one priority. …