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

Getty
Show Hide image

“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.