Andy Burnham is appalled. I had only asked whether there is any truth in the popular Westminster rumour about the ‘Primrose Hill Set’ — where he and other young Labour ministers allegedly meet on Sunday afternoons in the north London home of David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, to discuss life and politics. It sounded plausible enough: aged just 36, he is a health minister and tipped as one of Labour’s brightest hopes for the future. But the idea of belonging to a bourgeois dining club is, to him, almost libellous.
‘I have never had lunch in Primrose Hill,’ he declares. ‘The thing that excites me at the moment is a chip shop I’ve found which sells both mushy peas and gravy. That’s more me than Primrose Hill. And that is where I certainly do not fit the archetypal New Labour mould.’ But does he socialise with this group of ministers — they are all friends? ‘Of course. But I have never had lunch, dinner or even breakfast in Primrose Hill.’
In so many other ways Mr Burnham fits the mould perfectly. Now six months into his job as health minister, he has made his reputation as one of the most effective ministers in government. He is steeped in the New Labour project, advising a long line of Blairite ministers, then becoming an MP himself six years ago. While he has stayed outside Gordon Brown’s orbit, he is too useful, it is argued, for the Chancellor to ignore him if and when he forms his first Cabinet.
For such reasons, Mr Burnham was named the Threadneedle/Spectator’s ‘Minister to Watch’ in our Parliamentarian of the Year awards last month. When we meet in his vast Department of Health office, he is still not quite sure what to make of the award, especially as he has a lifelong suspicion of conservatives. ‘I’m grateful, I’m proud, but it does make me a bit uneasy,’ he says. ‘It makes me wonder — watch doing what?’ he asks. ‘Falling flat on my arse at the first hurdle?’
He has already navigated several hurdles quite successfully. Within the Department of Health, arguably the toughest beat in Whitehall, he is known as a fixer able to make peace with warring factions. ‘It’s impossible not to like him,’ says one mandarin. Born and brought up in Liverpool, he went from local Catholic school to Cambridge, then straight into Parliament working his way up as a researcher for Tessa Jowell. ‘That was six weeks before John Smith died,’ he says. ‘I was an early part of the New Labour project, albeit quite far down the food chain. So I’ve been on the journey and feel fantastically privileged to have been involved. But do I feel jaded? No I don’t.’
He makes the point because Labour, he believes, is only halfway through a journey and is handing over power to a new generation. Mr Blair’s departure will mark the end of part one, and it is time to be honest about the mistakes made so far. ‘Labour in its early days [in power] was like an automaton machine; you could not breathe a word of criticism against it,’ he says. ‘Slowly, some of us have found our voices a little. We’re saying, “Let’s understand, learn and refresh.’”
The group he refers to — the ones who we must absolutely not call the ‘Primrose Hill Set’ — is almost certainly Labour’s younger stars such as Mr Miliband, his brother Ed, James Purnell (pensions minister) and Liam Byrne at the Home Office. He does not, however, name names. ‘In our age-group, we have a level of experience beyond our time in politics.’ Nor, he claims, are they split along Blairite v. Brownite or any other lines. ‘There is no big ideological difference between us.’
This group, he says, share a common background. They came along too late to bear the scars of the Kinnock era — although Mr Burnham joined Labour during the miners’ strike, aged just 14. ‘I was a child of the Eighties. I was one of Thatcher’s children,’ he says. ‘What Labour had in the early to mid-Nineties was people politicised at that time who came in and joined the party. We’re now in the 30 to 40 age- group and have real strength in depth.’ The Tories, he says, have no such reinforcements. ‘Their troops are not there in quite the same way.’
Mr Burnham’s analysis for the party’s future is startling. He thinks that Labour needs to pause and reflect on the people ‘lost along the way’. Part of the criticism he would now make of this New Labour automaton was that it told the public its project would take one, or even two, parliaments. The timescale which Labour should really have given Britain, he said, is no less than two decades.
‘New Labour should have said that getting Britain to the place we think it should be is a 20-year project. We were all a bit still in opposition mode, all getting marvellous already. That can build cynicism and lose people.’
Similarly, a 20-year timetable is not one likely to have won votes when seeking to depose John Major. The phrase ‘Things can only get better, but not until 2017’ would never look good on a Labour pledge card. But now Mr Brown is looking explicitly at the next ten years — so in naming this timeframe, Mr Burnham is singing from a Brownite hymn sheet.
But will it make up for his 12 years singing in the Blairite choir? Mr Burnham lauds the Chancellor as an ‘outstanding and towering candidate to be Prime Minister’ but his list of bosses — Ms Jowell, Chris Smith, David Blunkett, Patricia Hewitt — are impeccably Blairite. Might such a CV impede his employment prospects? ‘I don’t think so. People put you in a box in politics. It may sound corny, but I’m just Labour.’
On ideological grounds, Mr Burnham is pro-choice, pro-reform — and pro all the types of things which the Treasury has been against over the last few years. The Chancellor famously declared that ‘the consumer is not sovereign in healthcare’ — implying a consumerist agenda was not appropriate. Mr Burnham’s view of health reform is undistinguishable from the agenda set down by Alan Milburn, the Chancellor’s arch-enemy: that the NHS must respond to the rising expectations of its users.
‘The NHS has had a be-grateful-for-what-you’re-getting feel to it,’ says Mr Burnham. ‘And a lot of people were grateful, because some generations remembered what the health service was like before the NHS came along. But today’s generation is different. They have an “I want it immediately” kind of culture.’ And this is what he believes the NHS must deliver — but the process is agonising. As trusts try to cut costs and wards close, it is leading to protests the length of Britain.
‘Health change is not sitting very compatibly with democratic politics at the moment,’ he says. ‘When change is mentioned, people throw their arms up and get out the placards rather than say, “Actually, health technology is changing.’” The ward closures are a symptom of an evolving NHS, he says: day surgery increases and new drugs allow former hospital patients to stay at home.
He has also found himself in direct battle with David Cameron. In an act of brazen genius, the Conservatives have posed as the saviours of the NHS and launched a ‘Stop Brown’s Cuts’ campaign. Mr Burnham is, of course, forcing health trusts to be more efficient — a task which even Mrs Thatcher shirked. Labour and Tory have switched sides. But rather than accuse the Tories of hypocrisy, Mr Burnham suggests he would have done pr
ecisely the same.
‘I’m sure we would have campaigned on health in similar ways. But we need to get a better dialogue going on healthcare changes. The political debate is standing in the way of that at the moment.’ Healthcare is changing fundamentally, he believes, and a clear debate is needed. ‘Digging trenches to save every hospital bed is actually not healthy for society in the long term. We’re going to have to find a better way of having that dialogue.’
Mr Burnham has not lost his Liverpool accent, and talks proudly about what he regards are Labour achievements for the people of Merseyside. He talks about most of politics through this prism and says that this is where David Cameron has gone wrong: trying to win over the sort of people who have lunch on a Sunday in Primrose Hill. ‘To what extent is he speaking to the whole country? Most of my constituents can’t afford wind turbines on their houses. I sense the metropolitan world is being very much wooed. But the larger country is asking: what the hell is all this about?’
He had dealings with Mr Cameron while he was working at the Culture Department and Mr Cameron was corporate affairs director at Carlton Communications. He had the impression of a man very different from the one being presented to the country now.
‘I don’t doubt David’s capability, but I do doubt his sincerity,’ he says. ‘He struck me as someone with very Spectator credentials: a very hard-line right-wing individual.’ If only, I think, but Mr Burnham’s face is stern. He is not paying a compliment. ‘In politics, where you come from, what you are, who you are is everything, really. That sounds a bit pompous, but if you are not yourself people will find you out.’
He believes that Mr Cameron is a fake, waiting to be exposed. ‘I know The Spectator readership might be heartened by David’s performance. But to what extent are his policies real rather than convenient? We’re being asked to believe that Polly Toynbee is now his spiritual guru, that he’s had a Damascene conversion on the environment, the health service and the Third World. My sense is that the real David Cameron has not stood up; that the real David Cameron is a hardline Thatcherite.’
It’s the kind of attack we’ll be seeing much more of in future. While Mr Cameron will be hoping for an hombre a hombre fight with Mr Brown, the Chancellor will seek to duck personal battle and instead deploy his young attack dogs: those who joined the party in the Thatcher era and see in Mr Cameron the same enemy they had thought slain. Mr Burnham, for one, is ready for the fight.