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Just what the doctor ordered

Protestors outside the Department of Health Image credits: 38 Degrees
Protestors outside the Department of Health
Image credits: 38 Degrees

During a recent homecoming, former Health Secretary and Exeter Alumnus Andrew Lansley spoke to James Roberts, Features Editor, about the Guild, government and a picture of his brain 

Andrew Lansley is the former Health Secretary, who prescribed harsh treatment for the NHS and was duly struck off. After just over a year shrouded in the relative safety of a minor Cabinet position, Lansley’s name still inspires unrelenting rage in fogeyish surgeons and militant revolutionaries alike. As we sit in the Amory building awaiting his arrival, it’s clear from the hastily printed A4 flyers being thrust under the audience’s noses that many on campus have not forgotten the man that tried to ‘privatise the NHS’.

Despite the obvious pockets of ire, it’s immediately clear that he feels back on home turf at Exeter. “It has changed a lot since the late 1970s,” he observes, “but it’s nice to be back”. Lansley hasn’t visited as much as some of our other prominent alumni, but Exeter remains his political birthplace.  “I was elected Guild President and won by 12 votes,” he recalls with a wistful air, “I won mainly because of a lack of appropriate candidates”.  Perhaps less has changed than he might imagine. Indeed, in his time at Exeter, he may have had much in common with those currently stuffing Amory with anti-government WordArt. “I remember a sit-in protest that we did at Northcote House – I slept under the Vice-Chancellor’s desk,” Lansley chuckles. It might be only fitting then that the rebellious Guild President turned Conservative Health Secretary is given a taste of his own medicine.

Outside of his political activism, Lansley suggests he didn’t particularly shine as an undergraduate. “I was lucky to get in,” Lansley explains, “I didn’t get the grades but I got in anyway. I got C, D and E at A-Level, but (Professor of Political Theory then and now) Iain Hampshire Monk interviewed me and I got a place”. In spite of this, Lansley can’t help admitting that “political theory wasn’t so important, but my degree did teach me some good stuff about government and politics”. His degree did just that, taking Lansley all the way up the Civil Service food chain before his switch into politics. For many, it is his extensive time working behind the scenes which has given Lansley the eye for detail which has thrust him forward in frontline politics.

As a senior government bureaucrat, he decided to jump ship to work for the Conservative Party. “I was a civil servant,” he recounts, referencing revered political sitcom Yes Minister, “and I had to decide whether I wanted to be Sir Humphrey or Jim Hacker, and I wanted to be on the pitch playing the game rather than watching it from the stands”. Starting his new career playing political football, Lansley emerged from the tunnel to find himself facing the biggest match of his career, in the 1992 General Election. The stunning and undoubtedly unexpected Conservative victory rewarded Lansley with a place on the Tory A-list, a CBE and a minor stroke. “I was given a picture of my brain,” Lansley exclaims with alarming glee, “having pictures of your body parts is one of the weird parts of being a politician”.

While working for the Conservatives, Lansley remembers a young David Cameron working for him in his research department. Is it strange now to think that Cameron has asked Lansley to serve under him? “I can’t have been a bad boss then,” Lansley jests, with an almost uncomfortable chuckle. One cannot help but wonder if this extraordinary role reversal occurred to Lansley when Cameron replaced him with a new Health Secretary in late 2012.

Image credits: NHSE
Image credits: NHSE

Lansley’s time as Health Secretary has defined his place British politics. While Labour was in office, he spent six years shadowing the job yet lasted only two contentious years in government. “Politicians should do their jobs for a while and it makes sense for a shadow to do that job before they take it on in government,” he explains, at the same time noting of his own departure that “the ideas that one person could stay on as the Conservative health spokesman for a decade or more is ridiculous”. As the subject of scattered personal attacks, including the ‘Andrew Lansley rap’ and a relentless heckling from an elderly woman outside of Downing Street, hatred for the former Health Secretary has gone viral. Somewhat exasperatedly, he asserts that, “every Health Secretary has wanted to do what the same thing that I did”. His face slowly reddening, voice breaking into frustrated incredulity, he continues, “it is extremely irritating. Other Health Secretaries don’t get the ‘selling the NHS’ nonsense. If I’d done what other Health Secretaries have done, they’d be burning effigies of me!” Though Lansley has considerable knowledge of the symptoms and believes his reforms were exactly what the doctor ordered, the prognosis from the public was not positive.

As the only Permanent Secretary in the Civil Service to become a Cabinet Minister, and with the conscientious approach to match, does he resent his vilification in the media? “You have to be resilient,” he insists, “when you’re sitting round the Cabinet table, everyone has had this kind of attack. It’s not a matter of if, but when”. Unsurprisingly then, Lansley, himself going from Guild to government, is full of discouragement regarding a career in politics, warning simply, “Don’t do it. People go into politics for the celebrity aspect now, but people are used to having a go at celebrities”. While he’s no celebrity, Lansley has become regrettably accustomed to the chores of unending media attention and varying degrees of public venom, despite what we have found to be a decent, considered and mild manner. “Do politics because you believe in it, because you have the political virus,” the former Health Secretary pleads, “politics is not about self-interest, it’s about having inspirational ideas to try and make things better”. Lansley certainly understands those things better than most. For him, his attempted NHS reforms seem to be the culmination of a career founded in radicalism and guided by meticulous public service. Perhaps then, when our next Health Secretary is inevitably accused to trying to ‘sell off the NHS’, spare a thought for the former Health Secretary that was dead on arrival.

James Roberts, Features Editor

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