MPs on the House of Commons health select committee quizzed Lord Prior on Thursday in a pre-appointment hearing. The committee concluded that it could not endorse his appointment unless he agreed to relinquish the Tory whip 'for the duration of his appointment as NHS England chair' - meaning he would effectively sit as an independent in the House of Lords.
Government plans to appoint Lord Prior - a Conservative health minister as recently as 2017 - to the senior NHS England role sparked concern among health professionals last week. The BMA warned his appointment risked 'politicising the NHS' and would send 'entirely the wrong message both to the medical profession and to patients who want an NHS working in their best interests, not in the interests of party politics'.
Lord Prior told the health select committee: 'I have agonised a bit about whether or not I ought to give up the Conservative party whip and become an independent or a cross-bencher. The truth is that I could make the argument both ways, and I would be personally happy with either outcome.
'Having thought about it a great deal, I thought, is it really credible for someone who has been a Conservative member of parliament, who was a government minister until six months ago, to give up the Conservative party and become a cross-bencher? Is that really credible? I thought that it was not, so I decided that it would not be the right way to go, on balance.'
However, during the hearing Lord Prior made clear that he would not vote on matters to do with the NHS - and claimed that like the health select committee chair, former GP and Conservative MP for Totnes Dr Sarah Wollaston, he was not a popular figure in the party whips' office.
'If they had wanted someone who was going to do what they said, they would probably not have picked me,' he told the hearing. 'Because although I am a Conservative, I am probably about as popular in the whips' office in the House of Lords as your chair is popular in the whips' office in the House of Commons, I believe.'
Lord Prior made clear that he would not vote in the House of Lords on matters concerning the NHS - although he admitted he would be likely to vote on issues such as the budget, which could significantly affect the health service.
A statement from the health select committee following the hearing said: 'We are satisfied that Lord Prior has the professional competence and experience required of the chair of NHS England. We also consider that he has the ability to demonstrate the personal independence required of the post. However, we consider that his continued holding of the Conservative whip - taken together with his recent service as a Conservative government minister - would compromise that independence.
'We acknowledge that Lord Prior will continue to be known as a Conservative even should he not hold the Conservative whip during his appointment. Resignation of the whip would be a practical demonstration that, for the duration of his appointment, he would not be taking instruction from any political party on the way in which he should vote on any issue before parliament, and would bolster his credibility as an independent holder of this important office.
'We therefore recommend that Lord Prior relinquish the Conservative whip for the duration of his appointment as chair of NHS England. If he agrees to do so, we are pleased to endorse his appointment.'
The health select committee also recommended last year that Baroness Harding, a Conservative peer who is the current chair of NHS Improvement, should relinquish the party whip, but she has not done so.
Labour MP Diana Johnson told Lord Prior during the Commons hearing that it was 'concerning that both the chair of NHS Improvement and the chair of NHS England will both be taking the Conservative whip'.
Lord Prior is set to take over as NHS England chair on 1 November, replacing outgoing chair Sir Malcolm Grant.