Clegg hits out at Cameron over NHS reforms

Deputy PM attacks Cameron for undermining the NHS while declaring that he loves it.

He may once have boasted that the government's NHS reforms were in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, but Nick Clegg is now chipping away at Andrew Lansley's masterplan. The BBC has obtained a copy of a Lib Dem policy document signed by Clegg which demands that Monitor, the health regulator, should have a duty to promote NHS colloboration rather than competition.

The document states: "We cannot treat the NHS as if it were a utility, and the decision to establish Monitor as an "economic regulator" was clearly a misjudgement, failing to recognise all the unique characteristics of a public health service, and opening us up to accusations that we are trying to subject the NHS to the full rigours of UK and EU competition law."

It's a demand that has been echoed by the British Medical Association and by the independent-minded Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, and one distinctly at odds with Lansley's original vision of a market-based NHS. In his address to Lib Dem MPs and peers last night, Clegg said:

There must be no change in the way competition law operates in our NHS. No to establishing Monitor as an economic regulator as if health care was just like electricity or the telephone, and no to giving anyone in the NHS a duty to promote competition above all else.

But it's Clegg's coded criticism of David Cameron that is most striking. He is reported to have said:

People get confused when one day they hear politicians declare how much they love the NHS and the next they hear people describing themselves as government advisers saying that reform is a huge opportunity for big profits for health-care corporations.

The Deputy PM doesn't mention Cameron by name but it's clear who he has in mind. After all, it was the Prime Minister who declared in a speech on Monday: "[I]t's because I love the NHS so much that I want to change it." And it was his adviser Mark Britnell (recently appointed to a panel of senior health policy experts by Cameron), who told a conference for health-care corporations:

The NHS will be shown no mercy and the best time to take advantage of this will be in the next couple of years.

One legacy of the AV referendum campaign is that Clegg now feels liberated to speak out. Cameron's failure to block the vociferous attacks on his deputy by the No to AV campaign means that Clegg is a lot less willing only to air his grievances in private.

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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