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Sarah Wollaston

Position: Member - Select Committee Health

Last Updated: Friday, February 18th, 2011

On her election to Parliament, Sarah Wollaston arrived with more of a mandate than most MPs. Not only was she elected MP for Totnes with a majority of nearly 5,000 over the Lib Dems, but she had been selected in 2009 as Conservative candidate by an all-postal open primary in which 25% of her future constituents – of all political hues and none – had participated.

This she did, despite having “very little political experience”, on the back of something of an anti-politician mood in a seat where the previous MP, Anthony Steen, had been forced to stand down over his expenses claims. She beat two senior figures in Devon local government for the nomination, and won, at least partly perhaps, owing to the public’s inherent trust of doctors.

Educated at a grammar school, she obtained a BSc in Pathology and an MBBS from Guy’s Hospital and spent her entire working life in medicine. This included a stint as a Forensic Medical Examiner for Devon and Cornwall Police and a total of 16 years as a GP, latterly in South Devon, where she lives with her husband (a psychiatrist) and three children.

After her arrival at the Commons she was voted by her peers to join the Health Select Committee, eager to be able to use her expertise to good effect, taking the view that there were “a few too many sacred cows in the NHS” and that “it sometimes feels that it is run more for the convenience of its staff than for the benefit of its users”.

She used her maiden speech to promote the policy of minimum price alcohol, citing her concern that something must be done about the 15,000-20,000 alcohol-related deaths each year. And as someone who describes herself as “very eurosceptic”, she also took that opportunity to note “the adverse effect of the common fisheries policy on our fishing industry”.

 She turned 49 this week, and marked it by notching up a further two votes against the Government on the issue of a turnout threshold in the AV referendum, the third and fourth occasions on which she has defied the whips and rebelled against the party line on substantive government policy (last November she rebelled in support of a Labour backbench amendment to the Equitable Life Payments Bill which would have offered compensation to those who took out policies before 1992 and again on the thresholds issue). 

And on the basis of an article she wrote for the Guardian last week – http://j.mp/gV41f0 – we can expect more of that.

She revealed that she had declared to the whips an eagerness to sit on the standing committee scrutinising the health and social care bill, but that she “effectively signed myself off the list of candidates” after saying that she would want to try and amend the legislation. The Government whips, after all, want legislation to pass as the Government intends and do not want independent-minded backbenchers trying to frustrate that.

She also revealed that she had been asked to become a parliamentary private secretary – an unpaid ministerial aide – but refused once she discovered that she would have been expected to toe the Government line in every vote and leave the health select committee as well.

Dr Wollaston has voiced the worries of many of the new intake about the traditional command and control way of doing politics at Westminster and if David Cameron is serious about holding many more open primaries for future candidate selections, he had better be prepared for more of her ilk. Moreover, if the whips’ grip on backbenchers is not loosened a little, there is every chance that some of the more independent-minded MPs like Wollaston – often those who are not steeped in politics but who do bring outside expertise to the Commons – will opt to walk away from Westminster.

Jonathan Isaby

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