Magazine article The Spectator

Andy Burnham: Healthy Ambition

Magazine article The Spectator

Andy Burnham: Healthy Ambition

Article excerpt

Andy Burnham on the NHS, 'mainstream Labour' and his party's leadership

Time was when Andy Burnham passed for a middle-of-the-road Labourite: he was deemed insufficiently dramatic and impressive to secure much support when he stood for leader five years ago. But these days, his colleagues -- and the bookmakers -- consider the shadow health secretary the frontrunner in any new contest. At an otherwise funereal Labour conference last year, his speech received standing ovations.

In three months' time, Burnham will either be health secretary or a serious contender for Labour leader. He has already survived calls from within his party to remove him from the health brief, though he claims Miliband has never raised the prospect.

We meet in the smaller of his two parliamentary offices, in the rabbit warren of MPs' accommodation in the old Norman Shaw buildings, and he is keen to play the loyal lieutenant, praising his leader for getting Labour into a 'position now where, weeks away from a general election, we can win' after just one term. But he is clearly keen for another crack at winning the top job himself. 'What I want to do is to support Ed through the campaign, and afterwards,' he says, while beaming awkwardly. It's hard for him to disguise his ambition, when the prospect of his leadership is being so keenly advocated by those around him.

So how has Burnham managed to turn his career prospects around so effectively? Has he reinvented himself? He accepts the Labour leadership battle forced him to work out why he was in politics. He concluded it was to 'represent people with no representation'. For him, these include victims of the Hillsborough tragedy. He says he was changed by his involvement in the campaign for justice for the victims because it was 'an example of where I had to stand out a little bit from the mainstream of where we were in the last government, and again, people might say it is all convenient, but it's not'.

He is clearly sensitive to the charge he has become opportunist, referring a number of times to people accusing him of taking 'convenient' stances on issues from Hillsborough to the NHS. On Hillsborough, though, he has his own accusation for his party. 'I knew there was a massive injustice. It's sad to say this, but I think the last [Labour] government couldn't see that because it was too close to the establishment at times. Belatedly, I tried to correct that.'

That correction won Burnham campaigner of the year at The Spectator's Parliamentarian awards in 2012, an accolade that hangs proudly above his seat. What isn't on display in the office is a collection of Russian dolls with the faces of recent health secretaries, sent to him by a health consultancy; he tells me his children now play it with at home. The set includes key ministers from Jeremy Hunt to Aneurin Bevan, with Burnham one of a handful from the last Labour administration. The Alan Milburn doll fits quite nicely inside the wooden rendition of Burnham, but that's where their compatibility ends -- judging by the way Burnham set about changing Labour health policy as soon as he took the job.

'People keep forgetting this but I took a difficult decision at the time, to say I wanted a different approach, because I suppose I am mainstream Labour,' he says.

'Mainstream Labour' for Burnham is non Blairite, and means a deep suspicion of markets. …

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