The coalition is now split over national health policy

NHS reform becomes first public division as Lib Dem conference votes in favour of radical rewrite of

Controversial proposals to reform the National Health Service in England has become the first public split on policy between the two coalition parties, after the Liberal Democrat spring conference voted overwhelmingly in favour of an extensive rewrite of the bill.

While there have been numerous backbench revolts on certain issues, such as tuition fees, and areas in which the parties have codified their disagreement, such as voting reform, this is the first public division on policy.

Nick Clegg, who said yesterday he was "very relaxed and very positive" about the NHS debate, narrowly averted defeat by accepting two "rebel" amendments when it became obvious that they were going to pass.

The two amendments centre on limiting the role of the private sector in the NHS. The party votes for banning GP consortiums from taking decisions in private about spending NHS money, totally ruling out any competition based on price, banning private companies from taking over commissioning, allowing private health providers in only when it will not damage existing NHS services, and ensuring the role of local government in the consortiums.

This vote is a major development: it means that Clegg's party is formally committed to changing the Health Bill. Evan Harris, the former Oxford MP campaigning on the motion, said that the party expected Clegg and the health minister Paul Burstow to be bound by the vote. In a clear challenge to the leadership, Evans said: "We expect Liberal Democrats in government to follow what we overwhelmingly vote for."

This will pose problems for Clegg with his Conservative cabinet colleagues, as the proposed changes will not beaccepted happily by the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley (who has also attracted the anger of doctors). Indeed, the whole bill – which proposes giving control of 80 per cent of the NHS budget to GP consortiums – is underpinned by a market-based philosophy.

This opens up an easy fault line for Labour, which can exploit the motion passed today by proposing amendments to the bill and challenging Lib Dem MPs to stay consistent with the decisions passed today and vote against the government.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.