The pressure rises on Andrew Lansley

The Health Secretary failed to rebut the charge that his reforms are "a disruption and a distraction

The coalition's decision to embark on the biggest reorganisation of the NHS in its history always sat uneasily with the need for the service to make record efficiency savings of £20bn. Indeed, the project was once succinctly described by the British Medical Journal as "mad". Now, the health select committee, chaired by the former Conservative health secretary Stephen Dorrell, has warned that the reforms are acting as a "disruption and distraction" and are hindering the NHS's ability to make savings. The committee argues that the health service is relying on short-term cuts and "salami-slicing" to save money, instead of re-thinking the way care is delivered. It all sounds much like the "perfect storm" that Hamish Meldrum, the head of the British Medical Association, spoke of in his interview with NS editor Jason Cowley in this week's magazine.

"It is self-defeating to cut services for patients in order to then re-invest to improve them", an anxious-sounding Andrew Lansley declared on the Today programme this morning (see below). But that is exactly what the Health Secretary stands accused of doing. Moreover, he failed to rebut the central charge that his reforms are undermining the NHS's attempt to save £4bn a year.

Lansley: NHS efficiency savings being done "the right way" (mp3)

David Cameron worked hard in opposition to convince the public that the Conservatives could be trusted with the NHS but it has become one of the biggest headaches for his government. Lansley's chaotic reforms have destroyed Cameron's ambition to depoliticise the issue. As Lord Ashcroft recently observed in his report Project Blueprint: Winning a Conservative majority in 2015, "nobody seemed to know why the reforms were needed and how, even in theory, they were supposed to improve things for patients." Just 20 per cent of voters believe that the NHS is "safe in David Cameron's hands" and Labour has established a 12-point lead over the Tories on health policy.

So, as Lenin asked, what is to be done? Lansley's opponents are determined to see the bill dropped but the widely-respected Dorrell insisted on Today that it was too late to go back. A dramatic U-turn would cause even more disruption, he suggested.

Lansley's own future is less certain. The Health Secretary has failed in the eyes of NHS staff and increasingly lacks the political authority needed to explain and defend the reforms. Should Chris Huhne's legal travails force Cameron to reshuffle his cabinet, he may well take an opportunity to move the discredited Lansley.

George Eaton is 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.