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.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.