McTernan on Politics

Who were the winners in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle?
Most public debate so far has been about the radical changes to the
British constitution: the establishment of a supreme court; the end
of the 1,400-year-old post of lord chancellor; and, in the light of
the success of devolution the Welsh and Scotland Offices being
folded in to a new Department of Constitutional Affairs. Little
attention has been given to the substantial changes in the field of
health and social care.

The resignation of Alan Milburn as health secretary was the real
shock amid the changes. There has been speculation that this was a
reflection of some deep-seated battle within the government. Had
the Treasury’s apparent victory over foundation hospitals led
Milburn to throw in the towel? Or was it a pre-emptive move by a
minister about to be humiliated, in Whitehall terms, by seeing a
significant part of his portfolio – responsibility for
children’s services – transferred to another, rival

But anyone who heard Milburn talking about his desire to spend
more time with his children as they grow up will have known that
what he was saying was genuine. The need to balance work and family
life has long been a concern for mothers. In future we may look
back on last week as the turning point when even the most senior
men in the country started to admit to being just as conflicted –
and in this case to act on their feelings.

John Reid has replaced Milburn as health secretary. Reid is one
of the most accomplished, if bruising, performers in the Cabinet.
His facility in handling conflict has seen him parachuted in to a
host of difficult briefs in the past five years. He is a Blair
loyalist but the roots of his politics go deeper. He is one of
Labour’s few genuine intellectuals with a taste for asking
searching questions and the ability to put together an argument
based on robust principles. Expect him to cajole as well as coerce
support for Blair’s health reforms and anticipate more
arguments emphasising that foundation hospitals represent the
abiding principles of the labour movement — particularly the
co-operative wing – in a modern setting.

One challenge Reid will not have to face is shaping the future
of children’s services. In a bold move these have been
unified under one minister – Margaret Hodge – within the Department
for Education and Skills. Hodge is hugely talented and committed to
excellence in services for children.

As social services departments, primary care trusts and local
education authorities manoeuvre to join up provision at a local
level it is surely welcome that such a unified approach on the
ground is finally being mirrored at the centre.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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