Siobhan Benita: NHS backlash fuels independent bid for London Mayor

After quitting Whitehall in protest, she tells Matt Chorley why she's aiming for City Hall

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The Independent Online

The senior civil servant who quit Whitehall in protest at the coalition's NHS reforms believes her bid to become Mayor of London could be the catalyst for a wave of independent politicians to sweep to power. Siobhan Benita, who was dismayed at Andrew Lansley's plans to hand £60bn in health spending to GPs, claimed there is a "real groundswell of support for independent voices".

Last month, The Independent on Sunday revealed a group of doctors opposed to the reforms were planning to stand at the next general election in the hopes of unseating up to 50 Tory and Lib Dem MPs. They condemned the Health and Social Care Act as an "embarrassment to democracy". Ms Benita said the GP campaign showed how strongly they feel "against some of the shambolic policies of this government... I am tapping into that public mood".

She was dismissed as a rank outsider in the contest's early stages, but bookies have slashed her odds from 500-1 to 25-1, putting her at third favourite behind the Tory Boris Johnson and Labour's Ken Livingstone. However, election rules have all but barred her from TV and radio programmes, which rely on a party's previous election performance.

She is thrilled at comparisons with Borgen, the Danish political drama that saw a female outsider catapulted into the role of prime minister after capturing the public's imagination. After 15 years in the Civil Service, the controversy of the health reforms was "definitely the very big last straw" that convinced her to quit.

"When you are a civil servant you know you are going to have to implement policies you don't agree with, and you are told that from the beginning. As long as you have put forward your objective advice and you feel that ministers have listened, that's democracy.

"What I didn't see in the Department of Health was any democratic remit for the reforms. And I didn't feel ministers were listening to the objective advice. They said 'No top-down NHS reform' before, and then you have a secretary of state coming in with a pretty fully formed plan for doing exactly that."

Mr Lansley yesterday pleaded with David Cameron not to sack him in the reshuffle, expected in the autumn. "The idea that in any job you introduce reforms and then you walk away would be regarded as absurd," he told The Times. Senior figures in Downing Street believe he will survive the cull.

But Ms Benita believes she can capitalise on public anger at the reforms. "There has never been as little trust or faith in our party politicians. This is a moment in time."

She has the backing of senior medical professionals across London; some claim she could be a "trailblazer" for the prospects of doctors at the next election. Dr Clive Peedell, a cancer specialist and co-chair of the NHS Consultants' Association who is hoping more than 50 health workers will stand for Parliament, agreed with Ms Benita that it was increasingly important that politics has "independent voices". He added: "The public is getting fed up with the political class."

Guy Baily, an HIV physician at Barts Health NHS Trust in London, added: "There are so many people who work for the health service who are in a state of rage about the [reforms] – hopefully, they will make the connection with Siobhan."

Ms Benita will launch her manifesto on Tuesday, having turned for advice to Sir Gus O'Donnell who was Britain's most senior civil servant until the end of last year. She also has the backing of Sir Richard Branson, Dragon's Den's Peter Jones, actor Tom Conti and the former MP Martin Bell. Her pitch is "a mix of social issues and hard commercial decisions".

She wants a greater focus on education, claiming 160 new primary schools are needed in the capital in the next 15 years. She would take a pay cut if elected, to fund a young mayor of London and a youth assembly.

She is also calling for a capability review of the Metropolitan Police following fresh allegations of racism in the service. It should be headed by a major figure such as Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, or the former Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Normington.

Unlike every other candidate, she backs a third runway at Heathrow – "It is in a terrible location, but it's what we've got" – and wants an independent watchdog to keep a check on spending at City Hall to stop the "Mickey Mouse figures" being thrown around by her rivals.

"An independent mayor will be more focused on the job and will be better for London because they will be more open to ideas from wherever they come," she said.

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