Wes Streeting is making waves.

His blunt criticism of the health service over the weekend has turned heads – and put the shadow health secretary, widely tipped as a future Labour leader, firmly in the spotlight.

He told the Telegraph: “If anyone in the NHS thinks that they can demand more investment without demonstrating better standards for patients, they’ve got another thing coming.”

Streeting, 39, called the NHS “a service, not a shrine” and described how the British Medical Association treats him like a “heretic” for calling out “appalling” levels of access to GPs.

The fact his target was that Labour invention, touchstone and talisman, the (formerly) sacred NHS, signals a refreshing shift in the party’s thinking, and an acknowledgment that fundamental reform is needed, not just more money.

The health service’s failures have affected Streeting personally. He was treated for kidney cancer last year, and was due to have a scan in August to check whether he was clear. But he got stuck on an NHS waiting list, along with 7.2 million other people. The scan only went ahead in November, and when he went to collect the results, he was told they hadn’t been processed yet.

His own health struggles are one small part of a remarkable backstory.  

Streeting was born to teenage parents in 1983 in Stepney, East London, where he grew up on an estate in a council flat.

Streeting’s grandfather was in and out of prison with a series of armed robbery convictions. His grandmother got caught up in her partner’s crimes and ended up sharing a cell with the model Christine Keeler – a central figure in the 1960s Profumo scandal – while pregnant with Streeting’s mother, Corinna.

Streeting’s parents split up soon after his birth, and he was raised by Corinna in poverty. He attended Westminster City School, a state school in Victoria. 

Yet despite his significant disadvantages, he got into Cambridge University, arriving, perhaps inevitably, “with a bit of a working-class chip” on his shoulder.

Streeting is gay and a devout Christian, a combination, he has said, which made it difficult to come to terms with his sexuality. (He has a fiancée, Joe Dancy, a communications consultant. They have been together for 11 years.)

After becoming president of the National Union of Students, he worked for Progress, the Blairite campaign group, before entering Parliament as an MP for Ilford North in 2015.

His apparently effortless ability to communicate and connect with people is reminiscent of Tony Blair, the figure he tends to be most likened to. But, unlike Blair, he is a working-class boy through and through. “He doesn’t need a focus group to tell him what the public thinks because he feels it himself,” Peter Mandelson has said about the shadow health secretary. Streeting has spoken about how he dislikes “the patronising middle-class claptrap on the left about being the saviours of the poor”.

In May 2021, the same month as his cancer diagnosis, he was promoted to the shadow cabinet by Keir Starmer as, appropriately, Secretary of State for Child Poverty. Six months later, he was given the role of shadow health secretary, and hasn’t looked back.

Bookmakers put Streeting as second favourite to be next Labour leader behind Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham. But for the time being, a post-Starmer world seems a long way off, and Labour’s sights are firmly fixed on the next election. Latest polling puts Labour 20 points ahead of the Tories. Labour is poised for power. This could be Streeting’s hour. 

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