Cameron slows down the NHS revolution

PM prepares to water down Andrew Lansley’s reforms after a political backlash.

David Cameron's political survival instincts finally appear to be asserting themselves. The PM, who was surprised by the level of opposition to the coalition's NHS reforms, is planning to put the brake on Andrew Lansley's revolution.Today's Times (£) reports that, instead of transferring 80 per cent of the NHS budget to GPs within two years, Downing Street now favours a slower pace of change, with 2013 "a goal rather than a deadline".

It's not hard to see why. Cameron worked hard in opposition to convince the public that the Tories could be trusted with the NHS. But the coalition's reckless reforms (likened by the Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston to tossing a "grenade" into the health service) have had the reverse effect.

Lansley is reportedly insisting that there should be no change to the scale and speed of the reforms. But he has already performed a U-turn on price competition and that weakens his hand. If the reforms can be amended once, they can be amended twice.

The "mad" decision (in the words of the British Medical Journal) to introduce the biggest upheaval in the service's history, just when the NHS is required to make unprecedented savings of between £15bn and £20bn, was never likely to bear scrutiny. I'd wager that the coalition will look again at the "any willing provider" rule and at the decision to place the NHS under EU competition law for the first time (something Cameron seemed only dimly aware of at a recent PMQs).

Cameron will reportedly sit down with Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander – "the quad" – to thrash out a solution in the next two weeks.

The PM is clearly determined to blunt Labour's sharp attack on his handling of the NHS. As I noted yesterday, he moved at PMQs to insist that the coalition will not break its pledge to increase NHS spending in real terms. But this expensive promise on its own won't be enough to win back goodwill.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.