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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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