Could Clegg kill the NHS bill?

The Lib Dem leader remains the greatest threat to the health bill's survival.

"We're fucked". That, according to today's Daily Telegraph, was David Cameron's terse response after he was briefed on Andrew Lansley's health reforms following the general election. His words have proved prophetic. The Tories now trail Labour by 15 points as the party that has "the best approach to the NHS" and just 20 per cent of voters believe the NHS is "safe in David Cameron's hands".

Cameron's strong defence of private competition at yesterday's PMQs suggests that he's in no mood to compromise. But the yellow half of the coalition may yet force him to do so. Nick Robinson's report last night that Nick Clegg is considering reneging his support for the bill is a sign of just how high tensions are running. For now, the Lib Dem leader is encouraging his peers to table further amendments to limit competition in an attempt to head off a revolt at his party's spring conference next month. But should this route fail, who's to say Clegg won't choose the nuclear option? As Robinson reported yesterday, the Lib Dem leader "has told allies that he is losing more activists from the party on this issue than he did on tuition fees".

Clegg was discredited when he gave his backing to the bill at the start of last year (Shirley Williams recently revealed that he hadn't bothered to read it). But it is he, rather than Labour and the health unions, who now poses the greatest threat to its survival.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.