Today is the day that general practice – at least through its representatives on the BMA’s GP Committee – selects a new leader.
It’s a crucial role, with the GPC chair not only representing GPs as their spokesperson and ambassador to the wider world, but having a very real impact on GPs’ pay and terms and conditions as head of the UK-wide negotiating team. And it’s been a hotly contested election this time around, with GPC stalwarts Dr Richard Vautrey and Dr Chaand Nagpaul and former GPC Scotland chair Dr Dean Marshall vying for the role – not to mention the eye-catching alternative of a job share between two of the profession’s most senior female GPs, Dr Michelle Drage and Dr Fay Wilson.
But amidst the speculation and crystal-ball gazing as GPs look to the future, it’s worth sparing a thought for the man who has sat in the hot seat for the past six years.
Dr Laurence Buckman, a single-handed GP in Finchley, north London, who will now be returning to work in his practice four days a week, has been battling on behalf of the BMA for so long he almost seems part of the furniture. A member of the BMA Council and a GPC negotiator since 1997, he played a crucial role in drawing up the new GP contract in 2004, and after a spell as deputy GPC chair succeeded Dr Hamish Meldrum as the main man in 2007.
His spell as chair has, by his own admission, had mixed results. Gordon Brown’s push for extended hours was an early trial, with Dr Buckman criticised by some for leading the profession towards all-out resistance, only to step back from the brink when faced with the threat of even worse terms being imposed.
He was criticised, too, for what some saw as a muted response to the NHS reforms, when the RCGP rather than the GPC seemed to make all the running, and it was Professor Clare Gerada who assumed almost by default the mantle of spokesperson of the profession.
The half-hearted attempt at industrial action over pensions, though led by the wider BMA and not strictly Dr Buckman’s remit, was another lowlight, while this year’s contract imposition was a (perhaps unavoidable) defeat not just for the GPC but for the negotiating process as a whole.
But looking at Dr Buckman’s chairmanship through the prism of these setbacks alone is unfair, given the daunting challenges he has faced.
He has had the misfortune to step up to the plate just as an era of unprecedented investment in general practice was coming to a close, and the age of austerity looming. He has faced a relentlessly hostile media and a succession of politicians unsympathetic to the merits of traditional general practice.
And despite that backdrop, there have been notable successes.
In a farewell opinion piece in Pulse last month, Dr Buckman hailed his contribution to the birth of the QOF as perhaps his proudest achievement, but also rightly cited his role in shaping revalidation as a success. Revalidation has not to date proved the nightmare many GPs feared it would be, thanks in no small part to determined behind-the-scenes lobbying by the GPC.
Dr Buckman has also, as he pointed out in the same piece, helped hold the profession together through a very divisive period. Salaried GPs and partners, younger and older GPs, CCG enthusiasts and commissioning sceptics – there were many fault lines along which the profession could have split, and that it remains more or less united is a credit to his leadership.
Throughout all the ups and downs of the past six years Dr Buckman has remained a steadfast, constant and to many GPs reassuring presence: battling the brickbats of the Daily Mail on a regular basis, playing his negotiating cards as best he can, cheerfully barking at journalists and leading GPs through the maelstrom in his own unique, no-nonsense, sometimes painfully honest style.
Have GPs fortunes as a whole improved over the past six years? No. Has Dr Buckman been an unqualified success as chair? Probably not.
Does he leave his successor some very big shoes to fill? Absolutely.
Steve Nowottny is the editor of Pulse. You can follow him on Twitter @stevenowottny.