The NHS is toxic for the Tories and they know it

An increasing number of Conservative MPs are starting to think the unloved health reforms ought some

David Cameron was rattled in the Commons today by an attack on his health reforms - and with good reason. The NHS reorganisation is a disaster on many fronts. It is unloved by doctors, poorly understood by the public and, after a series of mangling amendments in parliament, barely even resembles the vision first outlined by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. The likeliest outcome from the whole thing is protracted chaos and worse services. This time it will be very hard for the Tories to blame the mess on Labour's legacy.

Opinion polls traditionally show Labour well ahead of Conservatives in terms of who is trusted to look after the NHS. Crucially for Ed Miliband, this is also an issue that is personally associated with David Cameron. The pledge to avoid "top down reorganisations" came from Conservative leader's lips. So did the promise to protect health spending in real terms. That will be very hard to achieve even if inflation comes down - at least not without imposing harsher cuts elsewhere. The Labour front bench think the NHS is one policy area where they might be able to puncture Cameron's famous Teflon coating. I have even heard it said by MPs, and not just from Labour ones, that the NHS alone could cost the Tories a majority at the next election

Crucially, Tory MPs are starting to get worried. They are as baffled as anyone else as to how the government got itself into this mess. Questions are increasingly being asked about Lansley's future. It is recognised that he would have to resign if the reforms were shelved. That is hard to do in practice because some of the structural changes are already under way. But as an exercise in political damage limitation it might still be worth slamming on the brakes and, if need be, losing Lansley. Very senior Tories recognise now that the NHS is their point of greatest vulnerability. So much so, in fact, that one source familiar with the Prime Minister's feelings about the subject recently told me Downing Street wished the Lib Dems had killed the thing off last year instead of insisting on a legislative "pause".

Back then Nick Clegg didn't want to be seen to be too obstructive. The Lib Dem priority was still being seen to make coalition work. With hindsight, Clegg's team now say they should have been bolshier and insisted that the NHS reforms be dropped. It is testimony to how politically toxic the whole thing has come that an increasing number of Tories on front and back benches agree.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.