Thérèse Coffey: convivial pragmatist inherits health service in crisis | Thérèse Coffey

THerese Coffey is a MP lover of beer, music and football whose lively karaoke parties are the stuff of legend in Westminster. One of her regular attendees has been her good friend Liz Truss, who appointed the coastal Suffolk MP as the new health and social care secretary, her third in just two months.

She has a reputation for being obsessed with work, even by the usual standards of parliament. “Her life of hers is basically about Westminster,” a colleague recently told the Sunday Times. Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) officials must prepare for a very demanding new boss. However, despite her reputation as a tough foreman, she is very popular with her colleagues. “She’s a friendly, sociable company, and fond of having a few drinks,” says one.

Coffey, 50, was born in Lancashire, grew up in Liverpool, briefly attended Oxford University and then earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from University College London. She graduated as a Chartered Management Accountant, had stints at a subsidiary of Mars and the BBC, and applied unsuccessfully to become an MP and MEP. She became MP for Suffolk Coastal in the 2010 election. She is a private person, she is not married, has no children and is close to her mother and sister.

A colleague says, “His political views are free-market and far-right, including strong anti-abortion views.” But a Tory source disagrees. “His political worldview of him is very pragmatic,” they say. Friends of his say his Catholicism is also a key influence.

Someone who has watched her closely over the last three years, during which she has been Secretary for Work and Pensions, observes that “she seemed to have no ambitions at DWP other than to maintain the Osbornite architecture of austerity and reduction in the value of benefits, and keep the lid on any awkward evidence that might undermine it”.

The same person adds that Coffey “can appear in public as tough and lacking in empathy.” That could prove detrimental when speaking in his new role about the many difficulties facing the National Health Serviceas health ministers must show they understand the challenges faced by patients and staff.

His closeness to Truss has prompted reports in recent weeks that he was offered various roles. “She could have had the choice of her, given that she is so close to Liz. But he is encouraging that she wanted to go into health, given the dire state of the NHS. She must think she can turn things around,” the Tory source said.

Coffey’s inbox is daunting and fraught with political risk, especially given the increasing inability of the NHS to deliver important care within long time frames. Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary from 2012 to 2018, said last week that the service was “in the face of the most serious crisis in its history”.

It is “in its worst condition in living memory,” says NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor. A possible wave of strikes over the pay of NHS staff, including young nurses and doctors, would pose a major difficulty for Coffey.

Its most pressing issues are the long delays faced by ambulance crews waiting to deliver patients to A&E staff, the difficulty patients have in getting GP appointments, and the fact that roughly one in eight beds hospital in England is occupied by someone who is medically fit to leave, but cannot be discharged because social care is not available to keep them safe. Yet all NHS services are struggling. In England, one in nine people is already on the waiting list for hospital treatment.

What can Coffey do to turn things around? A large injection of cash is not an option, especially given Truss’ promise to cancel the 1.25% increase in national insurance that began in April and was expected to generate £12bn a year for the NHS.

The staffing shortage is getting worse: vacancies in England soared from 105,000 in March to 132,000 in June. But while both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have promised to come up with a strategy to tackle that, none has yet emerged.

How will it go? A colleague opines: “I’m afraid Thérèse is out of her league in this job. I have no idea how she’ll approach the job and, more worryingly, I’m not sure she knows either.

“She will need a good, experienced team of junior ministers and heed the advice of senior NHS leaders if she is to have any sort of success on the job at a time of great crisis for our health service.”

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