If Labor wins the next election, and Streeting is confident of victory, while taking pains to say the party is not “cocky” about it, few believe the health secretary will be the pinnacle of their ambitions. Although he only entered Parliament in 2015, winning his Ilford North parliamentary seat from the Conservatives, he has been tipped as a future Labor leader, in the Blair mould.
His own backstory sounds like the stuff of fiction. Streeting’s grandfather was in and out of prison, with a “series of armed robbery convictions.” His grandmother got caught up in the crimes and she ended up sharing a cell with Christine Keeler (of Profumo fame), while she was pregnant with Streeting’s mother, Corinna.
Corinna herself was still a teenager when she gave birth to Wes, in Stepney, east London, in 1983. She was separated from her father (who was also a teenager) shortly after the birth, and Streeting has admitted that, despite After overcoming those handicaps to get into Cambridge, he came to university “with a bit of a working-class chip” on his shoulder.
The devout Christian also struggled to come to terms with his sexuality, coming out as gay while studying there. (He has been in a relationship with his fiancé Joe Dancey, a communications consultant, for 11 years.)
After becoming president of the National Union of Students, he worked for the Blairite Progress campaign group before becoming an MP. He was then promoted to the shadow cabinet by Keir Starmer in May 2021. Even his cancer diagnosis (in the same month) did not stop his promotion: he was appointed shadow health secretary six months later.
The MP insists that he has never held individual NHS staff accountable for all the failures he has experienced since his initial surgery, which involved the removal of his kidney.
“The staff are lovely,” he says. “They really care. When I went in the other day, and they couldn’t give me my results, they were very apologetic. And I said, ‘Look, it’s not your fault. It’s the system. And I think I’m where most of the patients are; deeply frustrated with the NHS and genuinely anxious about the future of the NHS, but completely supportive and understanding of the staff.”
Talking to staff about their experiences at work is really annoying, he adds. “You can see how dedicated they are to the patients. They’re trying their best and coming home at the end of long shifts, knowing that what happened during their workday wasn’t good enough, but they couldn’t have worked harder.
“I think that’s where leadership matters, that’s where change of government matters.”
Since his return to work after surgery, the NHS has gone from one crisis to another, with record waiting lists in the wake of the pandemic, a doubling of long waits for cancer patients and now the next industrial action. As a result, Streeting has gained more political exposure, which, in turn, has led to talk of his future as a possible party leader.
“It is very likely that we will win the next general election,” he says, referring to polls that have Labor firmly ahead of the Tories. “But we are not satisfied with that. We are not smug about it. We are determined to earn the trust of the voters.”
And his own future? When asked directly if he would hope to one day end up running the country, he says the possibility of an electoral victory means the question seems “even crazier” than when the rumors circulated last summer.
“I think Keir would make an outstanding prime minister. I think he is serious. I think he has a serious team and a serious plan,” he says.
“I hope that, when I look back on my career in politics, I can have the crowning achievement of being the person who took hold of the NHS crisis and set the NHS on a path to be fit for the future. If that is my only achievement in politics, it will be a life well spent. As for a future beyond that… I mean, who knows? I have seen enough snakes and ladders in Westminster in the last few months and years to know better than to make predictions.”
The general election is at the latest two years away, and Streeting fears that before then the NHS could face its worst winter ever, a situation that may further increase Labour’s chances of success.
“What you won’t hear me say in the run-up to the next general election is that the NHS is the envy of the world,” he says. “We know it’s not true, the patients know it’s not true, the staff know it’s not true, and the politicians know it’s not true.”