Could NHS reform be the Lib Dems' downfall?

Dissent among party members over the health and social care bill has overshadowed spring conference.

This weekend's Liberal Democrat party conference has been dominated by one issue: the NHS. Yesterday, it looked as if dissent among the party rank and file had been stifled, when a vote to "kill the bill" was blocked. A rival motion that called on Lib Dems to support the health and social care bill, put forward by Baroness Shirley Williams, was selected instead. This was a relief for Nick Clegg and the rest of the party leadership, under pressure from rebels who see the Lib Dems as having sold out their social democratic principles. Clegg, speaking to Sky News, was adamant that reform did not threaten the NHS:

Of course it's unsettling when you see lots of people saying "it's going to privatise the NHS and destroy the NHS". If I thought it was going to privatise or destroy the NHS, it would never have seen the light of day.

But the reprieve was short lived: today, members partly rejected the "Shirley Williams motion" and refused to fully endorse the bill. Activists voted 314 against 270 to remove a crucial line calling for peers to support its final stages.

This will have little effect on the bill's passing - Lib Dem members have not called on peers to block the bill, but in a sign of how unhappy many are, they can not bring themselves to support it, either.

This is an embarrassment for Clegg, who will now be accused of supporting a reform that not even his own party members want. It's an embarrassment for the party, too, who now appear to be pushing ahead with NHS "privatisation", even though they can't decide if they like it or not. If the Lib Dems were hoping this conference would galvanise public support, and start winning back voters who have deserted the party since 2010, they may have been sorely mistaken.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

0800 7318496