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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.