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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.