Coalition tension over NHS reform escalates

Tory backbenchers set out “red lines” on reform and accuse Clegg of using Health Bill as a “politica

The row over NHS reform has intensified, with Conservative backbenchers expressing anger that their coalition partners are being given too much ground.

This follows weeks of anger at the pause in the legislation for the so-called listening exercise, and at increased Liberal Democrat vociferousness on the subject of NHS reform. Tim Montgomerie tweeted last week that Tories were referring to the Lib Dems as "yellow bastards".

So, perhaps it is not surprising that Nick de Bois, MP for Enfield North, sent out an email yesterday criticising comments made by Nick Clegg and calling for the Tories to set out "red lines" on reform.

The offending comments by Clegg came during a Q&A session after a speech. He said that he thought it would be wrong to rush the Health and Social Care Bill through parliament after the "listening exercise" ends next month.

"I think we will need to send the bill back to committee," he said – a process that could lead to a delay of six months. The speech had been approved by Downing Street – but there had been no discussion of sending the bill back to the committee stage.

De Bois's email accused Clegg of using the reform as a "political tool":

These are premature and inappropriate comments. We are still in the listening exercise. Our coalition partners have had the loudest voices in this debate and I am keen that the Conservative backbenchers have their voice heard so we can highlight our red lines that come from our manifesto.

But it was a smart move by Clegg. "It is best to take our time to get it right rather than move too fast and risk getting the details wrong," he said. If the government does offer the substantive changes it has promised, it will be difficult to argue with this sentiment.

Playing for time is all very well. However, as I pointed out yesterday, what this boils down to is a central disagreement over the principle of competition. The Liberal Democrats want to see it curtailed, while Tory right-wingers believe it is vital to the reform. This is a serious division, and one from which both sides will find difficult to back down.

Indeed, while many in the press have speculated that Lansley's career may be over, he is reportedly being hailed as a "hero" among the Tory right. He was even cheered at a meeting of the influential 1922 Committee last month. Expect the battle over NHS reform to get worse, not better.

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