Sarah Wollaston MP, along with two other Tory MPs, has announced today that she has quit the party to join a group of ex-Labour MPs.
In doing so, it is likely that Wollaston – voted the second most influential woman in the NHS in 2015 – will feel under pressure also to resign her position as the chair of the Committee that scrutinises policy, administration and expenditure of the Department of Health and Social Care and its associated bodies.
Wollaston, who as a GP has more than twenty years’ experience in clinical practice, has fronted the Committee, which over the past year broke parliamentary committee convention when it published confidential documents shared between Vertex, NHS England and NICE as part of its ongoing inquiry into the availability of Orkambi on the NHS.
After winning a parliamentary seat in unusual circumstances following an open primary in 2009, Wollaston set herself aside from the status quo of most politicians, citing as qualifications “only real life experience, approachability and enthusiasm”.
Her unassuming start in politics has gathered momentum over the past decade, from her criticism of the Lansley reforms to being made chair of the influential Liaison Committee , which has seen her become a rather prominent backbencher.
Never overwhelmingly supportive of the life sciences industry, exemplified by her assiduous criticism of Vertex in the Orkambi inquiry, industry will be hoping that if her position becomes vacant, it is filled by someone more accessible.
With only four other conservative MPs currently sitting on the Health and Social Care Committee – and none with anything like the same level of expertise as Wollaston – it is hard to see who might fill the gap. Perhaps were she to vacate her seat on the Committee entirely, it opens up the possibility of a new member immediately filling the chair’s role. Would Vicky Ford be tempted? Or perhaps Maggie Throup? Fellow GP Phillip Lee may be a good option and has a good record of standing up to the government – a key requirement for the HSC Committee chair.
Either way, what interested onlookers should consider, is that a new Committee chair could change the direction of travel for all its current workload, including the important new inquiry into the NHS Budget and long-term plan. Watch this space.