Andrew Lansley had one of those unfortunate ‘meeting the public’ experiences that politicians have to go through from time to time, when he was heckled on his way into the No 10 meeting on the Health Bill yesterday.
It seems to have made him shy – at health questions today, he seemed more than happy to let his junior ministers do most of the talking. He provided a masterclass in what I think we might have to start calling ‘ministerial backseat driving’, which takes the form of glaring at the shadow health team over his glasses and gesticulating around Simon Burns’s back.
Incidentally, the Speaker took advantage of Burns’s greater-than-usual despatch box time to hit back at that ‘sanctimonious dwarf’ line Burns had used about him, referring to the health minister as “an emollient fellow”.
When Lansley did get to his feet, it was clear that his temper was not far from the surface – he was noticeably irate in his answer to Ben Bradshaw’s question on whether he would publish the outcome of the Mid Staffordshire inquiry in time to inform the debate on reform, and when shadow health secretary Andy Burnham asked whether it was true that NHS employees who registered their opposition to the reforms were to face disciplinary action. Once Dennis Skinner joined in, calling for the bill to be dropped, Lansley was so provoked he scarcely seemed to be drawing breath.
Even when Lib Dem MP Andrew George asked the simple question “will the minister drop the Health and Social Care Bil”, it was Burns, not Lansley, who rose to his feet to say “no”. George commented on this, saying: “Any more rational process would have resulted in the dignified withdrawal of the bill long ago… Frankly it should be the secretary of state answering this.”
To that, Lansley had no answer.
UPDATE My colleague Amber has just filed Michael Gove's remarks on the subject of dropping the health bill from today's press gallery lunch:
"Absolutely not… I don't think and haven't said to anybody that we should drop the bill. Quite the opposite. I think that the legislation that is going through will, firstly, empower professionals. Secondly, guarantee patients more effective and faster treatment. And thirdly, ensure that the money that we rightly dedicate to the health service is used more efficiently to help those most in need more quickly than ever before. This reform is necessary and I think that Andrew has been brave and right and principled in pressing ahead with it. The old lady who confronted him yesterday came from a political tradition not a million miles away from, well, the left. I don't think she was a member of the Surrey Heath Ladies Luncheon Club. And I thought that Andrew handled her as he handles all public occasions, with grace and composure."