Jeremy Hunt faces a formidable opponent

Campaigns Labour Party

Jeremy Hunt’s weekend didn’t end well.

The Secretary of State for Health probably hoped that the Save Lewisham Hospital victory would be something he could discard into the cobwebs of his memory. If you watch him closely he always swallows hard when the word ‘Lewisham’ is mentioned – a sure sign of residual tension.

From now on he will be reminded of his most famous defeat so far, every time he steps up to the dispatch box, with the appointment of Lewisham East MP Heidi Alexander as the new Shadow Secretary of State for Health.

The former party Whip is not yet a household name – but she has already earned her NHS spurs.

Readers will recall that in 2013, Hunt tried to decimate Lewisham Hospital’s A&E, maternity and children’s unit, along with 60% of the site – but was defeated by campaigners in the High Court. Twice, in fact.

Alexander’s very public support for the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign (highlighted here) played a strong part in raising awareness borough-wide. She sent literally hundreds of thousands of campaigning emails to local residents. She was there when over 25,000 people took to the streets in protest, there on rain soaked and snowy marches, high summer pavement rallies, stalls, at public meetings, the Lewisham Pensioners Forum trolley push and alongside the famous ‘buggy army’.

Vicky Penner, spokesperson for the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign welcomed her appointment, saying “We are delighted that Heidi is getting recognition for her commitment fighting for the NHS. She has been an excellent advocate for the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign in Parliament from the very beginning… She has been an extremely accessible, supportive and hardworking MP with a passion for the NHS – both locally and nationally.”

Her impressive capacity to absorb complex information has enabled her to offer incisive (and sometimes withering) challenge to Hunt on the floor of the Commons. But she also marries her sharp and practical intelligence with pragmatic good humour, which makes her a formidable opponent both inside and outside the Commons. Something Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine discovered yesterday, when Alexander tweeted a good-natured smackdown to Vine’s rather unsisterly sneer:

Sarah Vine says Heidi should give up hobnobs

An electrician’s daughter, born and raised in Swindon, Alexander attended Durham University and then did a stint as a researcher to long-time Deptford MP Dame Joan Ruddock. Elected a young Councillor in Lewisham, she rose swiftly to Deputy Mayor and lead member on Regeneration, whilst also chairing Greater London Enterprise.

Mayor of Lewisham Sir Steve Bullock is a great supporter, saying this week, “Appointing Heidi as Deputy Mayor was one the best decisions I have ever made – she was simply outstanding in all she did and how she did it.” He adds that as an MP, “Heidi has played a vital role in speaking up for the kind of her healthcare her constituents need and she will now be able to do that for the whole country.”

Part of the 2010 intake of MPs, Alexander increased her 2010 majority by 5,000 votes in 2015, taking 55.7% of the vote.

Locally popular, the MP is widely-seen as both hard-working and warm. In 2011, after marrying husband Martin Ballantyne at the Horniman Museum, she cut short her honeymoon to fly back so that she could take part in emergency debate over the riots, Lewisham having been one of the areas affected.

Hers is a diverse constituency with a colourful history – its best known green space of Blackheath is so named because the Great Plague victims are all interred beneath. Alexander is a regular attendee at family events on the heath – and at lively local Labour Party events including the legendary Progression Dinner – where different courses are taken in a succession of homes, culminating in her kitchen.

During the unrelenting contests of the summer of 2015, Heidi hosted two events at Catford’s glorious Talent Factory – one for Andy Burnham and another for Sadiq Khan. Neither had been the first choice of her own CLP, but Heidi is her own woman – though also, as her voting record shows, a party loyalist.

At each event the MP oversaw refreshments and then, after we packed up the bar, she put every chair back in exactly the same place as we had found them when we arrived ‘because the owners like it like that’, before giving supporters lifts home. Such friendly thoroughness is her trademark.

So – where does the new Shadow Secretary of State stand on NHS privatisation? What is her view of the ‘Reinstatement Bill’? Could she even be a fan of Milburn? Having supported Andy in the leadership election, will she be interested in pursuing his innovative manifesto pledges on social care?

In 2014 she gave evidence to the UNITE-funded People’s Inquiry into London’s NHS, criticising the lack of honesty in the discussions around hospital reconfiguration, and the accountant-led nature of the Lewisham decision.

Her recent comments to the BBC’s Norman Smith set the scene at the present juncture:

there is a very, very limited role for the private sector – where it helps to reduce waiting times and produces value for money, at the moment it has a place where it can enhance the service in a very limited range of circumstances. I do think the public are inherently cynical of the place which the private sector occupies in health and see that money should be going into patient care and not into the pockets of shareholders.”

Alexander has told interviewers that she approves of the way in which Jeremy Corbyn has reached out across the whole of the Parliamentary Labour Party in his Shadow Cabinet appointments, adding that whilst the decision whether to accept an invitation was a matter of individual conscience, and whilst no one ever agrees with another 100% of the time, for the sake of the country the Party needs to make this work.

Her fellow shadow ministers know that in her they have a formidable and a supportive colleague who is not afraid to tackle difficult decisions. And we can be certain that Andy Burnham will offer her support in her new role.

Heidi’s West Country-tinged burr will soon be familiar to many beyond Lewisham. Hunt will no longer be able to try and distract attention from his own shortcomings by using Mid Staffs in repeated and misleading attempts to malign Burnham.

He will instead be faced with his own real life failures at Lewisham.

Nothing escapes Heidi Alexander – and for Hunt there really will be no escape.

First published on OurNHS