Her sacking is a major blow to Andy Burnham’s plans for a future Department of Health in which Abbott would lead a much stronger public health system.
How much the decision was due to Abbott’s outspoken, mildly left-leaning public persona, and how much it is a step back from Burnham’s bold plans for a renewed NHS, will be much debated in the coming weeks.
In January, Burnham announced that the next Labour government would place public health at the forefront of the NHS – with Diane Abbott playing a key role in bringing together local government and NHS stakeholders.
Burnham’s statement at the Labour Party conference last month that New Labour had been “wrong” to introduce free-market NHS reforms may have alarmed party strategists keen to maintain the New Labour programme.
Abbott’s recent comment that the Labour leader was too readily influenced by opinion polls, coupled with her sometimes abrasive stance on race relations, may have made her an easy target for dismissal.
However, whether the change will stabilise Burnham’s health team, or inflict a damaging loss of seniority and public profile, is uncertain.
Writing on the Guardian website, Abbott commented: “My first thought was that I was sorry to be no longer working with Andy Burnham and the health team. I am also sad to be leaving some of the good friends that I made in the public health world.”
Her lack of “message discipline” had irked the Labour leader, she said – and now she planned “to enjoy being a free agent on the back benches”.