UK Politics

Political lives: Stephen Dorrell

Stephen Dorrell on Newsnight in September 1992
Image caption Stephen Dorrell, right, defending government policy on Newsnight after Black Wednesday

He was once the youngest MP in the Commons, a rebellious "wet" before joining the Thatcher government and becoming a key player under Major. Now, after a low profile spell, Stephen Dorrell has re-emerged as a respected Commons committee chairman.

It's fair to say Stephen Dorrell has experienced more roles in parliamentary and government life than most during three decades in Westminster.

But he's also now become the man who, during a brief appearance at the Leveson Inquiry, laid to rest the oft-repeated political myth that "doing nothing is not an option".

A 1995 memo read out at the inquiry set out three options he gave after Prime Minister John Major asked him how they could do nothing about press regulation:

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Media captionStephen Dorrell outlines the "do nothing" options
  • "Make no statement at all. This has worked surprisingly well so far" - the then National Heritage Secretary said.
  • "Announce that we shall do nothing" - Dorrell was less keen on this second option as it would mean the government having to justify its decision.
  • The third option in the memo was for the government to announce their "intention to legislate... when parliamentary time allows" (his italics). He agreed at the inquiry that the italics were used, because "the real intention would be in fact not to enact". He told Major the third option would "take a good deal of brazening out but... is the least bad choice - it cannot be criticised as a substantive retreat, it avoids a head-on collision with the press and it gets the select committee off our backs".

The exchanges provided one of the lighter moments of the inquiry hearings so far, with Mr Dorrell explaining that when he wrote minutes in government "I tried to write them in English that didn't require decoding".

Seventeen years after writing the "do nothing" memo Dorrell still steers clear of jargon despite experiencing nearly all sides of political life, from low-profile opposition backbencher to his current role as chairman of the influential House of Commons Health select committee.

Most recently he has found himself back in the upwardly-mobile camp, touted as the likeliest replacement when current Health Secretary Andrew Lansley found himself battling to save his job over his planned shake-up of the NHS in England.

"It's always very flattering to see your name referred to in prints like that, but I guess I've been here long enough now to let it all wash over me, to be perfectly honest," Dorrell says.

In any case, he adds, as Lansley has now carried through the NHS legislation "I think he's entitled to the opportunity to apply it and to demonstrate the value it can create".

On the subject of the NHS Bill, he thinks claims for it, and about it, have been rather overblown.

"I'd be wrong to minimise" changes such as greater clinical engagement in commissioning, "they are important second order changes, but they don't come close to justifying the rhetoric that's been used".

He sees the recent changes as a re-statement of the health reforms from 1990, when he was junior minister to Health Secretary Ken Clarke - changes which he says were then basically confirmed by Alan Milburn's Labour health bill in 2002.


Having seen the three bills from three different perspectives, he says he sees his current role as more influential than being a shadow health spokesman.

"But you clearly have less [power] than the government has, because in the end what a select committee does is to recommend, and the secretary of state has the power to pick up and run with recommendations, or to resist them."

In what could be seen as a reference to the party political split in the culture committee over its report on phone hacking, he says the health committee has sought to focus on key issues on a cross-party basis.

These have been issues such as the one he calls the Nicholson Challenge - the need, first outlined by former NHS chief executive David Nicholson, for the NHS in England to make 4% savings four years in a row, and the need for more integrated care.

"What the committee is seeking to do is to position itself in the current political argument about healthcare rather than just grandstanding, which has sometimes been the default option for select committees."

After 33 years in Parliament all the jobs have "had their moments" but he says he's enjoying contributing to the policy debate now "without the relentless grind of the administrative function which comes with the ministerial red box".

'Very bright. And ambitious'

Asked which political jobs provided most satisfaction he picks his time as health secretary - 1995-97 - even though this included the task of announcing new medical evidence suggested there was, after all, a health risk to humans from BSE - or what was better known as "Mad Cow" disease.

The other was his role as a Treasury minister, during the turbulent years including the UK's dramatic departure from Europe's exchange rate mechanism.

That fateful day, Black Wednesday 16 September 1992, saw Dorrell being one of the prominent faces of the government, with the Chancellor Normal Lamont locked in meetings and his number two, Michael Portillo "not feeling it was his place to go and defend our ERM policy".

A few days later Dorrell had the job of going on Newsnight to face a grilling from Jeremy Paxman about whether the government knew what it was doing.

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Media captionStephen Dorrell, right, defended government policy after Black Wednesday

As the video, above, shows, he did well enough, and earned a role as a frequent defender of the government during their long march towards a huge defeat at the 1997 election.

It sounds like a thankless task, but Dorrell does not see it that way: "I've always quite enjoyed dealing with journalists - I characterise a television interview as being like a batsman at a crease. I try to avoid being out and try to score runs when you get an opportunity."

His time in the Treasury coincided with that of a young David Cameron, who was one of the special advisers there: "He was always, clearly, very bright. And he was also very ambitious."

Prescott 'rumbustuous'

Looking relaxed in his Westminster office, it is hard to imagine Dorrell being much of a panicker, and he does rebut the suggestion that was the mood in the Treasury back in September 1992: "I wouldn't have described it as panic - more it was a recognition that the policy had run its course."

The core lesson of that episode is one that he says has been learned several times over "and which is unfortunately currently being learned again by some other countries in Europe".

"At the heart of the failure of the ERM policy was that our inflation rate and therefore our monetary conditions were dramatically different to those in Germany and that meant policy was unsustainable in the long term."

Mr Dorrell, who is from the One Nation/Mainstream (or what in the Thatcher years was known as the wet) part of the Conservative Party, began his political career as "chauffeur" and bag carrier for then prominent Tory Peter Walker in the first 1974 election.

A few months later, aged 21, he was up against John Prescott in Hull East. It was a seat in which the Tories never stood a chance but his "rumbustuous" opponent never gave him any quarter. As Dorrell puts it "I fought Hull East and Hull East fought back".

Lord Prescott has remained what he describes as a "nodding acquaintance" when they meet in Parliament, where he arrived in 1979 after getting elected in Loughborough. "The Commons is full of people who stood against each other so it's not unusual."

'Thoughtless bureaucracy

As a constituency MP he says the issues being raised with him over the years have evolved.

When he first became an MP a regular issue was families seeking his support to get an elderly relative into residential social care, a system operated by local authorities with long waiting lists.

That changed during the 1980s after the introduction of private provision of social care, he says.

"Another thing that has changed, but not as much as I would have liked, is when people come to see me because they have a need for social housing."

In general he says the role of a constituency MP is to help "in the same way that a barrister helps to put a case in court - you know the system and you can put the argument on behalf of a constituent".

"At the end of the day there are finite resources but the local MP can be a useful advocate of a constituents' interests.

"It happens occasionally, you get something when dealing with immigration, housing allocation, planning, schools admissions, welfare entitlement, with the revenue... sometimes you can make a case and change an answer that affects an individual's life. Quite disproportionately so.

"I wouldn't pretend you can always do so, but it does happen on occasion. Occasionally one comes up that really does make one angry on behalf of a constituent - there's been a serious injustice and a quite unnecessary injustice just as a result of thoughtless bureaucracy."

Mr Dorrell says his aim as a Conservative was never to change the world. Instead it was "to move the argument forward in the direction of a more competitive market-oriented economy and a more tolerant and liberal society".

Coalition supporter

He says that those basic objectives have remained "pretty consistent, although the language changes and the priorities change".

Three decades on, Dorrell, who was appointed to the frontbench health team by Prime Minister Thatcher because "she wanted someone who had management experience", says her government's liberalisation of economic life was fundamental to the prosperity which followed.

Although his views have changed since 1980 he says that "looking back I wouldn't describe myself as any more a Thatcherite now than I would then - I would still be a wet".

Generations of politicians have discovered when they get into office that getting things done is not quite as simple as most people might imagine. So was it easy for Dorrell, who has lengthy management experience from his family's business, to achieve his aims?

"Life is never as simple as that in any organisation, however large or small, and a department of state is not small. You don't get people to support you and do what you're asking them to just by 'tell', you have to do it by explanation and by demonstrating why you want something done and taking people with you."

The coalition government certainly seems to be taking Dorrell - who after all is from that section of the Conservative Party which aims to "win from the centre ground" - along with it. He says he's a "very strong supporter" of his party's alliance with the Lib Dems, saying it has "a degree of authority in parliamentary and popular terms that was simply not contemplated" during the 2010 election.

Some from the Conservative right might not be happy with the coalition but in his view, it has a programme which no-one could oppose on mainstream Conservative grounds - "this is a government with a broad base, electoral support and a right-of-centre programme".

And thanks to his recent appearance at the Leveson Inquiry, it's a government which may now think twice before trying to kick any policies into the long grass using the phrase "when parliamentary time allows".

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