So the smoke form the guns has cleared, Gordon Brown has announced his first Cabinet as Prime Minister, and none other than Alan Johnson has been confirmed in the post of Secretary of State for Health.
It appears that there are three primary reasons as to Johnson was given this post: firstly with a good record from his time as Education Secretary, and previously at the Department of Trade and Industry, he has a reputation for being a ‘safe pair of hands’, which will clearly be essential in a brief commonly acknowledged to be one of the most difficult in Government. Secondly, he has built a reputation for charm and skilled negotiation, both of which will prove essential in motivating a health service still bristling from the Government's reform agenda: doctors over the new training system and nurses over the staging of their pay award. But perhaps most crucially of all, exactly because the Department of Health is such a difficult brief, the former Chancellor will hope that the challenge is so great that Alan Johnson will not have the time, opportunity or political credibility to create waves within Government, still less generate the momentum towards a prospective leadership challenge. Not only is he known for being a Blairite (Johnson was the one notable front-bench Cabinet Minister to offer public support to Blair following the failed coup prompted by the resignations of Tom Watson and six other Government members), he was even tipped to challenge Brown for the leadership of the Labour Party following Blair's departure.
The benefit of this appointment to Gordon Brown therefore is two-fold: if Johnson manages to successfully trim hospital waiting lists, implement existing proposals and placate the frustrations of health workers, Brown can enter into an election period with a strong record on health provision in comparison to his predecessor. Given the emphasis that David Cameron has placed upon the NHS, this would rob the Conservatives of a major election theme, and could prove crucial in securing Brown his coveted second term as Prime Minister. If on the other hand Johnson fails to reinvigorate the Department of Health, Brown can safely eliminate a major potential rival – or at least demote him in the security of a damaged reputation. For this reason alone it is unsurprising that Johnson was handed such a potential poisoned chalice (it was initially speculated that he would be offered the equally troubling Home Office brief), and it will remain to be seen how well he can work with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister.