SPECULATION was rife last night that Welsh Health Minister Jane Hutt was sacked after the intervention of Tony Blair to ease criticism of Labour as the General Election looms.
First Minister Rhodri Morgan sprang a new-term surprise by replacing Ms Hutt, constantly under fire over appalling Welsh waiting-list figures, with Aberavon AM Dr Brian Gibbons. He is a GP who spent 2½ years as her deputy.
Ms Hutt, who refused to give a statement or interview yesterday, remains in the Assembly Cabinet as Business Minister, the Cardiff Bay equivalent of Leader of the House of Commons. Her predecessor in that role, Karen Sinclair, loses her Cabinet place but will still attend its meetings as Labour Chief Whip.
Plaid Cymru's parliamentary leader Elfyn Llwyd said Ms Hutt had been sacked after pressure from the Labour Government in London.
He said, "With only four months to go until the General Election is expectedthe timing of Jane Hutt's removal is suspect to say the least.Understandably the London government was concerned that Jane Hutt and her appalling record on the NHS could have cost New Labour votes at the General Election and so the decision was taken to remove her.
"All too often the First Minister has tried to reassure us there is clear red water between New Labour in Wales and New Labour in London. This announcement confirms that from policy making to the appointment of ministers, New Labour in London is firmly in charge of the Welsh Assembly Government's affairs.
"It is not beyond Tony Blair to intervene in Labour Assembly Government ministerial appointments; after all it was the Prime Minister himself who parachuted a reluctant Alun Michael to the post of First Minister when the Assembly was first created in 1999.
"Understandably, with a general election looming, Mr Blair would have been extremely concerned with New Labour in Wales' record on the NHS and, as a leader more preoccupied with presentation than substance, he would have hoped that a change in minister would fool the Welsh public into thinking things would improve within the NHS in Wales."
Jonathan Morgan, the Conservatives' Assembly health spokesman who will challenge Rhodri Morgan's wife Julie in Cardiff North at the general election, said, "Rhodri Morgan has clearly panicked and bowed to pressure from backbench Labour MPs and Parliamentary candidates. This is clearly a move to shore up Labour's crumbling support ahead of the general election rather than a well-thought-out policy to improve standards in the health service."
Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly leader Mike German said, "It seems that with the General Election expected to be only a few months away, the First Minister has bowed to pressure from Welsh Labour MPs and got a new face to present Labour's failing health policies.
"Jane Hutt's failure was that there was no strategic approach, no Wanless action plan, and waiting lists kept getting worse. 'Making everyone wait' was clearly her theme for the NHS in Wales. Now that Rhodri Morgan has heeded the calls for change from his Westminster colleagues, the new Minister must get to grips with her unfortunate legacy. One in 10 people in Wales are on a waiting list, I only hope that Dr Gibbons has the remedy."
The allegation of interference from London was robustly rejected by Mr Morgan, who said Labour MPs' views "just didn't come into it".
He added, "When I reappointed Jane Hutt to the Health and Social Services portfolio in 2003, she and I both agreed that she would not be Health Minister in the run-up to the 2007 elections."
Opposition parties called for Dr Gibbons to instigate a change in health policy, and Mr Morgan said the new minister would have the freedom to make his own decisions.
"It's his baby now, I've told him It's your show'. He's got a unique combination of having been a deputy minister and a GP for 20 years."
In announcing the changes, the First Minister made no mention of the criticism Ms Hutt has faced for years, instead heaping praise on her.
Mr Morgan said, "I am confident that Brian Gibbons has a unique combination of experience and talent to build on the platform created by Jane Hutt for the health and social services of Wales since May 1999.
"Now I have asked Jane to take on another key Cabinet position where she can help to lead the Welsh Assembly Government's agenda and ensure that it is translated into practical action.
"All of the stakeholders in health and social services - and that is virtually all of us in Wales - will recognise Jane Hutt's huge contribution to the development of health and social services in a devolved Wales. As well as all the pioneering work in Health Challenge Wales and across the board in the public health agenda, the corner has clearly now been turned on long waiting times, and after 5½ years in one of the most demanding portfolios in government now is the time to hand on those responsibilities from a position of investment, improvement and strength."