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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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