Ministerial profile: Norman Lamb

Written by Alistair Lamyman on 28 January 2014 in Interview
Covering community concerns from flood risk insurance to encouraging practical skills training in schools, health minister Norman Lamb is always involved locally

It’s seldom that top politicians these days don’t have their almae matres listed as the best private schools in the country, followed by Oxbridge. Refreshingly, Norman Lamb hails from humble beginnings and an early childhood in Norfolk, and a stint at Wymondham College, one of the few remaining state boarding schools in the country, followed by a law degree at Leicester University.

Perusing his curriculum vitae, the North Norfolk MP has more than just dipped a toe in the waters of Westminster politics over the years, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Starting his career as a solicitor, he first specialised in employment law while working for Steele & Co (now known as Steeles Law), and during his time with the company got a first taste for politics.

While on sabbatical, in the unlikely role as a parliamentary researcher for Labour MP Greville Janner, the doors to the corridors of power where opened to him. During formation of the SDP–Liberal Alliance, a conversation with Shirley Williams sparked his ambition, and Lamb ran, and was subsequently elected to Norwich City Council – he had previously worked for the council as a senior assistant solicitor – in 1981, serving as leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1989..

Taking on the Tories in North Norfolk was no mean feat, as they had held the seat for over 30 years. With a majority of 12,000, the incumbent seemed comfortable, and in his first attempt to win a seat at Westminster, Lamb was unsuccessful. His second attempt, in 1997, was much more of an achievement managing to reduce the majority to just over 1,200, but still falling short of winning the seat. Embodying the true spirit of the mantra “If at first you don’t succeed…”, Lamb was eventually triumphant in 2001, after nine years of trying. During his years of canvassing, Lamb found time to pen Remedies in the Employment Tribunal, but parliamentary commitment has prevented him from releasing any further editions.

He wasn’t long on the backbenches before his potential was realised, and he was made not only the Lib Dems’ spokesmen on International Development, but also the PPS to then leader Charles Kennedy. It was from here that Lamb’s game of ministerial musical chairs began. Following the 2005 election (returning with a majority similar to his predecessor), during Kennedy’s last round of appointments as leader, Lamb became the Lib Dems spokesmen for Trade and Industry, and during his brief tenure, proposed the measure to part-privatise the Royal Mail, which surprisingly received a ringing endorsement at the party conference.

When Ming Campbell shook up his team after taking the reigns from Kennedy, Lamb was parachuted into the role of statesmen for Health, building up a formidable brief during his four-year term. It was he who led the charge in 2009 against Jeni Barnett when she cast doubt on the MMR vaccine, tabling an EDM marking the House’s disappointment.

Nick Clegg must have heard good things about Lamb’s dutiful performance, as he appointed him his PPS, as well as to an assistant whip’s role, immediately following the 2010 election. In politics, loyalty is rewarded, and following Chris Huhne’s resignation in February 2012, a series of promotions saw Lamb rise to the longest-titled rank in government, minister of state for Employment Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs. He only remained in this position for a few months, as, in the October reshuffle, he was moved to the Department of Health as new minister for Care and Support, where he remains to date.

Many politicians have their share of colourful relatives, and the North Norfolk incumbent is no exception. His father, Hubert Lamb, was a climatologist and one of the first scientists to propose that the climate could change within human experience, which has since been hailed as one of the top 100 world-changing discoveries to come from universities in the past 50 years. In 2009, Lamb junior and his wife re-mortgaged their house to help launch their son Archie’s career as the co-founder of Takeover Entertainment, in which his business partners are Jack Foster and one Kwasi Danquah III (aka grime artist Tinchy Stryder). The Lamb family history of forging individual careers is, it would seem, in good hands.

One department insider tells Total Politics: “A canny political operator and an extremely effective campaigner. When Tim Farron became an MP, Norman was the man he sought out to learn about how to deliver a base in your constituency to help get re-elected. He gets the policy detail of being a minister but crucially knows that just as important is making sure that the political interests of the Liberal Democrats are protected, so he hasn’t been afraid to push back on the Tories in his department when necessary. He’s also been very strategic, focusing his time on issues where he knows he can make a difference and that the party appreciate, like mental health. He’s also well-respected internally as someone who is a safe pair hands with the media.” 

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