ConservativeHome calls for health bill to be scrapped

Three Tory cabinet ministers "almost instructed" influential website to come out against NHS reform.

It has been a bad week for Andrew Lansley. David Cameron may have said this week that the Health Secretary has his "full support", but evidently not everyone in the cabinet feels the same. The influential website ConservativeHome has published an editorial calling for the bill to be scrapped. It claims that it was urged to do so by three Tory cabinet ministers.

This comes off the back of Rachel Sylvester's article in the Times (£) on Tuesday, which revealed deep concern about the NHS bill from the inner circles of government. She quoted a Downing Street insider who said that Lansley "should be taken out and shot."

Cameron moved to squash speculation that the Health Secretary is on his way out, throwing his weight behind efforts to get the bill on the statute books in the next few months. (It was defeated in the Lords this week). The Sylvester piece also made the point that the Prime Minister is remarkably loyal to Lansley, who was once his boss at the Conservative Research Department.

Yet it appears that some in the cabinet do not share Cameron's conviction for pressing ahead with the bill. In today's editorial, Tim Montgomerie writes:

Speaking to ConservativeHome, three Tory Cabinet ministers have now also rung the alarm bell. One was insistent the Bill must be dropped. Another said Andrew Lansley must be replaced. Another likened the NHS reforms to the poll tax. The consensus is that the Prime Minister needs an external shock to wake him to the scale of the problem.

The intervention from ConservativeHome is significant for several reasons. First and foremost is the fact that it was urged to make this intervention by members of the cabinet who feel that Cameron is not listening. A source at the website told the Guardian: "We have almost been instructed to write this." If this is indeed the case, it is remarkable that cabinet members have reached such a level of frustration with Cameron's refusal to ditch the bill.

Secondly, the website is generally taken as a good bellwether of grassroots Conservative opinion and is thus far more significant for the government than the on-going clamour from Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters. Montgomerie articulates the growing sense that the bill is, essentially, more trouble than it's worth and "potentially fatal to the Conservative Party's electoral prospects":

By 'succeeding' in enacting a contentious Bill every inevitable problem that arises in the NHS in the years ahead will be blamed on it. That's a heavy price to pay for a Bill that is neither transformational nor necessary.

Guido Fawkes notes that this may not be the majority view of Tory voters, who still tend to support NHS reform. He makes the point that "cabinet ministers are hardly the grassroots". That may be the case, but this is still a highly significant intervention, reflecting the fact that the political pressure on this issue is not going anywhere.

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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Power-sharing and devolved rule are under threat. What's going on? Ciara Dunne explains. 

The UUP will formalise their decision to withdraw from the Northern Ireland executive on Saturday. The DUP then announced that it may consider voting to remove Sinn Fein from the executive effectively ending or at least suspending devolution. This is due to a statement by PSNI chief constable George Hamilton stating that former IRA member Kevin McGuigan may have been murdered by people connected to the Provisional IRA (PIRA). However Hamilton also stressed that there was no evidence to prove that the murder occurred due to PIRA orders and there are claims that it was a personal vendett.

The UUP declaring that they will withdraw from Westminster is not particularly destructive. They only have one minister and their vote share has been steadily declining since they signed the Good Friday Agreement to the benefit of the DUP. By acting so dramatically, they run the risk of this seeming like the death rattle of a party trying to remain relevant in a world so different from its heyday rather than a principled stand to protect the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement.

Nesbitt voiced disgust that the IRA was still in existence. However the IRA is not one group and many of its splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and Real IRA (RIRA) didn’t sign up to the Good Friday Agreement and have been active since it. They were not the only paramilitary groups that did not sign up, fragments of extremism have existed since the PIRA decommissioned and it seems likely that they incorporated those who had been PIRA members who were disillusioned by the agreement. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach and Good Friday Agreement negotiator, explained while the PIRA had to decommission as part of the agreement, for various reasons it was allowed to exist in a non-armed state. News of its existence shouldn’t come as a shock to the only major unionist party that engaged in Good Friday Agreement negotiations. If the PIRA were proved to be armed and active then this response would be understandable but that is not the case.

What this stand does however give the UUP is a unique selling point compared to their rivals the DUP and it can somewhat tackle the perception some have that the UUP betrayed the unionist community when it agreed to work with Sinn Féin in government.

The DUP has been less drastic. Although they have stated that they would consider pulling out of government, they have described it as temporary suspension of government rather than a total breakdown of trust. Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP, said that if they are to continue to power share with Sinn Féin, they must ensure the PIRA issue dealt with ‘in terms that gives everyone the reassurance that this isn’t going to happen again’. This is a reasonable request and something Sinn Féin must do. They should be unwavering in their condemnation of any paramilitary organisations. However so far they haven’t done otherwise, several senior figures have denied that the PIRA have rearmed. Pearse Doherty, a prominent Sinn Féin TD, insisted that when it came to the IRA “the war is over, they’re not coming back”.

The best way to tackle paramilitaries is to tackle the reasons people joined them. This can be done not by threatening to withdraw from the government but standing together against sectarianism. Parties must ensure that there is a functioning government that works for the good of everyone and gives people a genuine stake in society. It is important that representatives of both communities condemn paramilitaries, in actions as well as words. All parties will soon have the opportunity to move away from old associations, as the old guard age and move aside and the younger members who are untainted by such associations, take charge of the party.

However, it is vital that parties take a considered stance in anything controversial for this to work. In this case, it is not yet certain whether the connections are historical or current. Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has stated she has no reason to believe that the PIRA are active in the military sense. Bertie Ahern pointed out that it is possible that ‘these atrocities are being done [by those] who might have been on the inside but are now long since on the outside?’ Political posturing could have terrible consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, especially if results in a party with a large electoral mandate being removed from government when there is no proof it has broken the agreement.

If the UUP and the DUP are truly concerned, a more constructive reaction is to push for the reintroduction of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). The IMC monitored paramilitary activity from 2004 to 2011 and its final report stated that ‘transition from conflict is a long slow process’. This latest incident shows this is true and it is likely that the IMC was disbanded too soon. Reconvening the IMC would offer a way to monitor paramilitary activity and to find patterns and evidence rather than allowing a single incident to destroy progress. If reconvened however it should address the issues that resulted in Sinn Féin’s criticism of the body. A more balanced panel, one agreed by all parties, would address this, the previous one was described as three spooks and a lord, but would still add value to the peace process.

If political parties pull out of the power sharing agreement over an incident that the police have not yet connecting to a sophisticated paramilitary organisation with political connections, they are handing extremism a victory while taking democratic choice away from the people of Northern Ireland. The majority of people in Northern Ireland have been clear, both in referendum and in their actions, they want peace and stability. If the parties of Northern Ireland don’t fight to protect this then they are betraying everyone who believed in the Good Friday Agreement and reconciliation.