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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.