Dr John Dunwoody

Able Labour health minister
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The Independent Online

John Elliott Orr Dunwoody, medical practitioner and politican: born London 3 June 1929; MP (Labour) for Falmouth and Camborne 1966-70; Parliamentary Under- Secretary, Department of Health and Social Security 1969-70; Chairman, Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster Area Health Authority 1977-82; Chairman, Family Planning Association 1981-87; Chairman, Bloomsbury District Health Authority 1982-90; CBE 1986; married 1954 Gwyneth Phillips (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1975), 1979 Evelyn Borner; died Béziers, France 26 January 2006.

There is a select band of ex-future Labour prime ministers. John Dunwoody was one of them in the late 1960s when he was Member of Parliament for Falmouth and Camborne. For a fleeting nine months between October 1969 and Labour's defeat in June 1970 he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, but with far more influence than a junior minister normally exerts.

He was a superb Labour Party Conference orator, in successive years having moved in his capacity as the leading light in the Socialist Medical Association the key conference resolutions on health; he was the son-in-law of the redoubtable Morgan Phillips, sometime General Secretary of the Labour Party, a relationship which mattered considerably in the minds of his prime minister, Harold Wilson, and of his immediate boss, the Secretary of State Dick Crossman; and within weeks he had proved himself - not only in my view as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Crossman working in the department, but also in the view of Crossman's Civil Service Private Secretary Robin Wendt. Wendt recalls:

Dunwoody was really screwed in to the political realities. He was a supremely competent minister worthy of a talented team with which Crossman had surrounded himself of Bea Serota, David Ennals and Brian O'Malley.

But above all, long before it was the received wisdom to do so, Dunwoody campaigned fervently and effectively for a total ban on smoking. Now it is taken for granted that smoking severely injures health. In the early 1960s, when Dunwoody led the campaign within the Labour Party and was prominent in Ash (Action on Smoking and Health), it was far from popular to espouse such a cause.

John Dunwoody came from a medical family and received a first-class rigorous education, for which he always expressed himself grateful, at St Paul's, before training as a doctor at King's College, London, and Westminster Medical School. He began his deep political relationship with the south-west of England in 1955, as senior house physician at Newton Abbot Hospital in Devon. For the decade 1956-66 he was a family doctor and medical officer at Totnes District Hospital.

In 1959, at the age of 30, he was chosen as the Labour standard-bearer in the hopeless (from the Labour point of view) constituency of Tiverton. But he did so well there that he was chosen for the winnable seat of Plymouth Sutton, losing in 1964 to Sir Ian Fraser, an opposition whip, by a whisker: 24,722 to 24,312, with the Liberals scoring 7,383. The Conservative majority had been reduced to 410. I believe that had Dunwoody won in Sutton he would certainly have held the seat, which was won by David Owen in 1966, by 31,567 votes to Fraser's 26,345. With a secure political base, Dunwoody's history would have been different.

However, Falmouth and Camborne looked a better proposition and in 1966 he succeeded the veteran Labour MP Harold Hayman (Hugh Gaitskell's Parliamentary Private Secretary), gaining 21,394 votes to the 18,131 of Robert Boscawen, of a well-known Cornish family and later an opposition whip. The prominent Liberal Manuela Sykes came third with 6,144. Alas, in spite of being an assiduous and popular MP in the view of Harold Hayman's widow, who virtually ran Falmouth and Camborne constituency Labour Party, Dunwoody went down in Edward Heath's victorious year of 1970.

On arrival in the House of Commons, Dunwoody immediately established himself as a potentially heavyweight politician. When, in September 1969, Crossman went on a Secretary of State's visit to Cornwall he was escorted by Dunwoody. It confirmed him in his belief that Dunwoody should be one of his junior ministers at the next reshuffle, which took place the following month. "I have been lucky in my own appointments," Crossman records:

I fought hard and without much trouble got John Dunwoody, who will make an enormous difference because he will fill the House of Commons gap and he is a really vigorous man who can take over Questions and letters from MPs and relations with GPs.

However, I recollect the night of Monday 2 February 1970, of which Crossman writes:

At 7.30 I had [Dr David] Stark-Murray [Secretary of the Socialist Medical Association] and John Dunwoody in for a drink and we sat in my room with Tam and watched the new, confident Heath on Panorama. I found him extremely unconvincing. He was jumping down the throats of the two people who were examining him, being rude and domineering, interrupting them. I don't think he made a particularly attractive impression.

I remember clearly the concise comments of Dunwoody, combined with a vision as to what a Labour government ought to be doing not only in the health field but generally, which lodged the thought in my mind that one day he would be an excellent leader of the Labour Party.

During his all-too-brief period in office, Dunwoody dealt with the very difficult problems of nurses' and hospital pharmacists' pay and the sticky issue of government policy towards the use of the Pill. As a family doctor, he could make a real contribution to the argument, and indeed he was the one minister who could hold his own with the formidable Chief Medical Officer of the day, Sir George Godber, who, now in his 98th year, remembers Dunwoody as a very able and a very nice young man. So I found him working in the department, and it was with huge sadness that his colleagues learnt of his defeat in 1970.

He was not to return to frontline politics but contributed valuable medical experience, most recently, from 1996, as Vice-Chairman of the Merton, Sutton and Wandsworth Local Medical Committee. He was appointed CBE in 1986, mostly for his work as Chairman of the Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster Area Health Authority. His loss was Parliament's loss.

Dunwoody's first wife, Gwyneth, now the formidable and hugely successful Chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Transport, entered Parliament at the same time as he did, as Labour MP for Exeter, and now represents Crewe and Nantwich. Their daughter, Tamsin, has been the Labour Member of the Welsh Assembly for Preseli, Pembrokeshire, since 2003.

Tam Dalyell