'Charmer' Johnson takes Hewitt's job

Alan Johnson, education secretary in Tony Blair's government, has taken over from Patricia Hewitt as health secretary.

Johnson, 57, was tipped for the job of deputy leader of the Labour Party but lost to Harriet Harman by a slender margin of 0.8 per cent of the votes.

He was also seen as a strong 'stop Gordon Brown' candidate in the leadership contest before stepping aside.

A Londoner and ex-postman who was abandoned by his painter and decorator father at eight and orphaned at 12, Johnson left school at 15 with no O-levels and was married with two children by 18.

He is a newcomer to the DoH having previously been secretary of state at Trade and Industry and at Work and Pensions.

A seasoned trade unionist known both for his charm and calm negotiating style, Johnson walked out on his first job stacking shelves at Tesco because he did not get a lunch break.

He became the first union leader in 40 years to join the Cabinet when he was appointed work and pensions secretary in 2004. At the Department of Education in 2004, his reputation for cunning, persuasion and successfully handling sensitive issues rose when he steered the government's controversial top-up fee proposals through parliament.

As MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle since 1997, he has been closely linked with recovering the missing pensions of fishermen in Hull.

Variously dubbed capable, combative, articulate and a safe pair of departmental hands, he marries a radical past with a modernising drive.

Anti-privatisation forces in the NHS have been encouraged by statements made by Mr Johnson during his deputy leadership campaign. He told the pressure group Keep Our NHS Public that Labour 'has a responsibility to monitor the success of its changes, and if outsourced services do not perform, we must act'.

Johnson also distanced himself from the policy of choice as a driver of change.

'Choice will only be valued if a good choice is on offer,' he said. 'The quality of healthcare per se is most important to the public, so the government must maintain its concentration on healthcare standards primarily.'

Johnson has also ruled out charging patients, saying: 'The NHS must be free at the point of use wherever fiscally possible.'

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