The final, practical outcome of Labour's Conference, the election of the Shadow Cabinet and their allotted roles on the Opposition Benches was announced last week. A process, seen by many in Labour's own ranks as needlessly complex, excluded some former Cabinet members of previous administrations and allowed the new Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, to stamp his own authority on his cohort by deciding the precise roles each of the elected will play. Mr Miliband's choice for the post of Shadow Chancellor raised more than a few eyebrows and is very well summed up by the left-wing newspaper, the Mirror, when it reported on 09 October 2010:
"Alan Johnson was named shock choice for shadow Chancellor yesterday as Ed Miliband pitched the ex-postie into battle with Tory aristocrat George Osborne...sources said he was Mr Miliband's first choice...The leader believes his wit, personality and working-class background make him the perfect opposition..."
The Mirror continued: "Mr Johnson...joked that his first task would be to pick up a book called 'Economics for Beginners'"
Can I suggest "Introductory Economics" and "Macro Economics: An Introduction" both by GF Stanlake. They're not heavy, but he will have to read fast in order to be able to reply to the Chancellor's upcoming Spending Review on 20th October.
Having previously backed former Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling's plans to halve the budget deficit within four years, the Mirror quotes Mr Johnson (now) saying: "We will offer a real alternative to the dangerous plans of this coalition." Sounds like a possible volte-face in the making!
The Mirror goes on to lay great store in Mr Johnson's relatively poor, working-class origins in contrast to the privileged background of George Osborne. It highlights the fact that the Chancellor attended the exclusive St Paul's School in South-West London before attending Oxford. The newspaper seems to forget that the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, coming from a fairly privileged background herself , attended the exclusive St Paul's Girl's School, though long after Gustav Holst was the Director of Music there but before George attended the boy's school. Ms Harman will no doubt inform the Mirror that the country is less interested in their leaders' milieu and more in their leaders' capability and capacity to pull Britain out of its economic predicament.
It is however, only fair to say that Mr Johnson has worked very hard and that by considerable effort has overcome the disadvantages which were his lot in his younger years and now, at 60, would hold the second most senior post in government, should the Coalition fall. During the last 11 months of the Labour Government, Mr Johnson served as Home Secretary and in so doing, became the first former trade union leader (Communications Workers Union) to be appointed to the Cabinet since Frank Cousins in 1964.
Prior to becoming Home Secretary, Mr Johnson held a number of Cabinet briefs, the longest between June 2007 and June 2009 as Secretary of State for Health.
Whilst Health Secretary, he famously criticised breast cancer patient Debbie Hirst's right to buy the (very expensive) cancer drug Avastin which the NHS, at first, refused to pay for. The story even attracted media attention in America, widely quoting Mr Johnson's remark: "(Patients) cannot, in one episode of treatment, be treated on the NHS and then allowed, as part of the same episode and the same treatment, to pay money for more drugs...That way lies the end of the founding principles of the NHS, which is supposed to guarantee equal care to all, regardless of ability to pay."
Many, maybe a majority, of the people in the UK were unaware of the "principle" Mr Johnson was expounding and probably, given Mrs Hirst's desperate circumstances, even fewer understood it. As a British doctor who wished to remain anonymous told the New York Times in February 2008: "You have a population that is informed and consumerist about how it behaves about health care information, and an NHS that can no longer afford to pay for everything for everybody."
Might Mr Johnson not be one of Ed Miliband's "New Generation Labour" after all?
There arose further controversy when, as Home Secretary and just a few months in the job, Mr Johnson in October 2009 fired the Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt. The Health Secretary wrote to Professor Nutt that his scientific advice was at odds with Government policy on drugs and therefore confusing the public. After the Professor's sacking, a further seven Advisory Council members resigned.
Yet for all the controversy, Mr Johnson is not to be underestimated. More and more in Parliament we are seeing the "professional" politician, the person who leaves university and embarks on a political career by serving a political party and/or MP and several, notable examples come to mind of such persons elected to a "safe" parliamentary party seat. Mr Johnson is not of that ilk but brings considerable experience from outside the Westminster environment, allowing for the fact that his work as a union member will have involved a political element. Since becoming an MP he has been given a range of positions and responsibilities and he will prepare and hold his brief as well as any.
His adaptability is an asset to his Party Leader and he won't be devastated to be moved in any future reshuffle. Ambitious he most certainly is or he would never have risen to Cabinet rank in the first place but it is not of the more obvious nature of the gentleman who was expected to be given the Shadow Chancellorship. I have no doubt that Mr Johnson has many fine qualities and is aware of his own limitations. The best attribute he brings to the shadow Cabinet and more importantly, to Ed Miliband in Labour's current circumstances is loyalty.
The last thing that Mr Miliband as Leader of the Opposition needs is a Shadow Chancellor being continually reminded that he is a "Deficit Denier". Step forth Alan Johnson to fill the breach, steady and loyal.