Lansley tells Cameron: “Back me or sack me”

The Health Secretary issues an ultimatum to Cameron after Clegg’s latest intervention.

After a week that has seen Nick Clegg threaten to dismantle most of Andrew Lansley's key NHS reforms – without a hint of dissent from David Cameron – it's not surprising that the Health Secretary's patience is wearing thin.

Four months ago, Clegg, like almost every other Liberal Democrat MP, voted in favour of the Health and Social Care Bill at its second reading. Yet he now insists that the NHS will not be open to any "any qualified provider" and that the reforms must promote co-operation, rather than competition.

Today's Daily Mail reports that Lansley has told Cameron to "back me or sack me", in a final attempt to persuade the PM to come to his aid. The Health Secretary came close to issuing such an ultimatum in public when he declared: "I don't want to do any other cabinet job. I'm someone who cares about the NHS who happens to be a politician, not the other way around."

Lansley's threat prompts the question: at what point would he walk away? He has already accepted that Monitor, the health regulator, will not be used to enforce competition and that GP-led consortiums will now include nurses and local officials on their commissioning boards. But he is less likely to accept the abandonment of the "any qualified provider" clause – one of the defining features of his proposals.

The key question remains whether Cameron shares Clegg's objections to the reforms, or whether his deputy is merely freelancing. It is hard to see how Cameron could accept Clegg's demands without precipitating Lansley's departure and further antagonising his increasingly restive backbenchers.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.