The real reason Clegg saved the NHS bill

If the junior coalition party had killed the bill, Cameron would have appointed a Lib Dem health sec

The Budget has blown most other political news off the agenda, so it is worth recalling that earlier in the week the cabinet was celebrating what it thought was the passing of a different headache: Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms. There was apparently a hearty banging of the cabinet table on Tuesday in celebration of the Health and Social Care Bill's gruesome completion of its parliamentary odyssey. I suspect that jubilation expressed relief rather than pleasure.

Either way, it was premature. Downing Street is hoping that the noisy fury around the NHS reforms will die down now that they aren't the subject of legislative trench warfare, but no-one is so naive as to think the issue will go away. Every increase in waiting times, every closed ward, every bungled operation will now be firmly blamed (fairly or not) on the choices made by the coalition. This is one area where "clearing up Labour's mess" really doesn't apply as a defence.

It has been something of a mystery to me as to why the Lib Dems - who have been well aware of the political toxicity of the health reforms for over a year - didn't demand that they be dropped. I know that there was some regret in Nick Clegg's team that the "pause" declared in the passage of the bill was not turned into a full stop last year. I also know that quite a few senior Tories and Downing Street aides came to the same view and rather wished the Lib Dems had killed the monster when they had the chance.

But at that time, Clegg was still very much concerned about coalition being seen to work as a form of government and was wary of obstructing such a big public sector reform. The Tories would have milked the episode for plenty of concessions of their own. Eventually, the Prime Minister decided that it was better to take the pain of trying to implement the reforms than absorb the humiliation of a gigantic u-turn (especially since an irreversible budget squeeze ensured a dose of NHS pain either way). Once Cameron had made that call, the Lib Dems fell into line.

But if they had really wanted to stop the thing, they still could have insisted. And the threat of being contaminated with Tory toxicity on the health service was substantial. So why did Clegg still press ahead? One explanation given to me recently is highly revealing about the way coalition works. There were, I am told, senior Lib Dem discussions until very late in the day about whether or not to kill the NHS bill. The key problem, it was decided - no doubt with the help of dark warnings from the prime minister - was that the quid pro quo for blocking Tory reform of the health service would be total Lib Dem ownership of the issue in the future. In other words, if Clegg wanted to block Lansley, he would have to accept having a Lib Dem secretary of state replace him in the next reshuffle and take responsibility for whatever happened next.

The message from Cameron was: you break it, you fix it. Wisely, Clegg decided that was not an opportunity he felt like taking. That explains also why there has been chatter about a Lib Dem taking the health portfolio in the near future. They weren't rumours, they were threats. I'm now fairly sure it won't happen. That doesn't mean Lansley won't be shuffled out - but he'll have to be replaced by another Tory.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.