Comment / ElectionWatch 2024: What now for key health roles in Parliament?

05 July 2024 Richard Gardham

As had been predicted by the opinion polls for some months, the Labour party has returned to power after 14 years on the opposition benches. 

Thursday’s election saw Labour win 412 seats, with the Conservatives in second place with 121 seats, followed by the Liberal Democrats with 71 seats, with two seats still to declare. This gave the Labour party a majority of more than 170 seats.

Prime Minister Keir Starmer spent Friday afternoon naming his cabinet, with Wes Streeting, who narrowly won his Ilford North seat, installed as secretary of state for health and social care. He has served as the shadow health minister since November 2021. In the junior positions, Andrew Gwynne had been the shadow minister for social care, Abena Oppong-Asare the shadow minister for women's health and mental health, Preet Gill the shadow minister for primary care and public health and Karin Smyth the shadow minister for health. All were re-elected as MPs and these positions are expected to be filled in the coming days. Life peers Baroness Merron and Baroness Wheeler had held health-related shadow cabinet roles from the House of Lords.

There have been six different Conservative secretaries of state for health and social care since 2018, namely Jeremy Hunt, Matt Hancock, Sajid Javid, Steve Barclay (who held the position twice), Thérèse Coffey and, most recently, Victoria Atkins. Of these, Mr Hunt, Mr Barclay and Ms Atkins retained their seats and Ms Coffey was defeated and will no longer serve as an MP. Mr Hancock and Mr Javid stood down as MPs at the general election.

Of the other MPs filling more junior roles in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) before Parliament was dissolved, Helen Whatley (minister of state for social care) retained her seat, while Maria Caulfield (minister for mental health and women’s health strategy) and Andrew Stephenson (minister for health and secondary care) lost theirs. Andrea Leadsom, the minister for public health, start for life and primary care, had announced she would not stand as an MP in the 2024 general election. Lord Markham had worked as the minister for the Lords within the DHSC, a position he will not continue to hold given Labour’s victory. 

It may be several weeks before the composition of the shadow cabinet is known, given former prime minister Rishi Sunak’s resignation as leader of the Conservatives. The party will hope to have a new leader confirmed by the start of its annual conference, which takes place from 29 September to 2 October. 

Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson for health and social care, retained her seat in St Albans. Ms Cooper is also the party’s deputy leader, and, as with the Conservatives, the composition of the party’s key roles will be revealed in the coming weeks. 

Labour’s manifesto said the party would cut waiting lists by creating 40,000 more appointments each week, some of which would be during evenings and weekends. It also said it would shift resources to primary care and community services ‘over time’, committing to train thousands of extra GPs. Other pledges involved cutting down times from referral to consultation, building new hospitals and providing 700,000 more urgent dental appointments, while also embarking upon a recruitment drive for new dentists. On social care, Labour committed to a programme of reform to create a National Care Service that would have a ‘home first’ principle, while on mental health, the party said it would train an additional 8,500 new mental health staff to treat children and adults through its first term in government.

Mr Streeting is widely viewed as being one of the Labour party’s more centrist senior figures. Indeed, his stance in favour of using private providers to help resolve the NHS waiting list crisis was one of the reasons Rosena Allin-Khan, a medical doctor with A&E experience, resigned from her role as shadow minister of state for mental health in 2023. Mr Streeting has identified three key areas that he believes the NHS needs to shift. They are placing a greater emphasis on neighbourhood and community care, embracing technology, and moving its focus from sickness to prevention. He used his speech at last year’s Labour Party conference to emphasise the importance of closer integration between the community and hospitals, as well as early diagnoses, saying: ‘Pouring ever increasing amounts of money into a system that isn't working is wasteful in every sense.’

The traditional Parliamentary summer recess was due to start on 23 July, meaning Mr Starmer and his government would struggle to put any immediate plans through the House of Commons. However, the new prime minister said this week that he would seek to extend the Parliamentary timetable immediately after the election to allow time to legislate before the summer. The expected timetable will now see the King's speech, in which the monarch reads out the government's legislative agenda, take place on 17 July, with Mr Starmer expected to push back the start of the summer recess until late July. Parliament will reconvene on 2 September.