Jeremy Hunt delivers a speech during a visit to the Evelina London Children's Hospital on July 5, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Jeremy Hunt's "hospital closure clause" could be a new NHS disaster for the Tories

At least 20 coalition MPs are expected to rebel against Clause 119 today, which would give administrators the power to close down any hospital or A&E without consultation.

After Andrew Lansley's botched NHS reforms, Jeremy Hunt became Health Secretary with a brief to take the service out of the headlines. But he's failed in that mission this week. Later today, MPs will debate what's been branded the "hospital closure clause". Introduced as a hurried amendment to the Care Bill, Clause 119 (formerly known as Clause 118) would give Trust Special Administrators, appointed by Hunt, the power to close or downgrade any hospital or A&E  in the country at just 40 days' notice (allowing no time for proper consultation) if a neighbouring NHS trust is in financial trouble. 

The measure was brought forward after ministers were ruled to have acted illegally by attempting to cut emergency and maternity services at Lewisham hospital after the South London Healthcare trust went into administration. Activists rightly argued that a well-performing and popular local hospital should not be made to pay for the price for failings elsewhere, and the High Court ruled in their favour. But Clause 119 would allow Hunt to overturn this defeat and ensure the government always triumphs in the future. 

The Health Secretary will get his way when parliament votes today, but he will do so in the face of significant resistance, not just from Labour but Lib Dems and Tories too. After revealing that there are 32 communities in England where NHS regulators have major concerns over the finances of trusts (and who could be left voiceless as a result of the measure), Andy Burnham has appealed to MPs to "put constituency before party" and block Hunt's plans. He said: "This Government used to say it wanted to put patients and doctors in charge of the local NHS. Now Jeremy Hunt wants to ride roughshod over local communities and have carte blanche to break up the NHS without anyone else having a say. He must be stopped.

"With more and more hospitals in financial difficulty, this move could hit every community in the land and leave them voiceless in the face of changes to their services.

"Labour is clear: changes to hospitals should be driven by clinical, not financial, reasons with local people involved every step of the way. That is why we believe these plans are dangerous and wrong. It is time for Parliament to stop an arrogant Secretary of State from overstepping the mark."

Burnham's cause is aided by the Coalition Agreement, which committed the government to ending "the centrally dictated closure of A&E and maternity wards, so that people have better access to local services." But the centrally dicated closure of services is precisely what Clause 119 would enable. 

Paul Burstow, the former Lib Dem health minister, who has tabled an amendment that would guarantee consultation rights for local people and give doctors who commission services a veto over any reorganisation, predicts that around 20 coalition MPs (who are increasingly preoccupied with their election chances) could rebel today. He said: "Support for my amendment has been growing. It feels to me that there's a growing disquiet on the Conservative side of the coalition about these plans, plus there are Liberal Democrat MPs who share the concern."

Burstow has won the support of his Lib Dem colleagues Andrew George, Julian Huppert and Mike Thornton, while Tory MPs Nick de Bois and Jeremy Lefroy are also likely to vote against the measure. De Bois, who led the Hands Off Our Hospital campaign against the downgrading of services at Chase Farm hospital in Enfield, said: "My constituents have seen first hand the flawed, unrepresentative consultations on the future of Chase Farm hospital … I have no intention of voting for a clause that reduces further the voice of patients and residents."

For the Tories, the row is a new political headache. Despite a concerted attempt to pin the blame for the Mid-Staffs scandal on Labour (including a lengthy section in David Cameron's conference speech), the opposition retains a double-digit lead on health (37-24 in the most recent YouGov poll). One party source told me that focus groups reacted "particularly strongly" when they were reminded of Cameron's past pledges on the NHS. By again exposing the Tories to the charge of broken promises, Hunt's hospital closure clause is in danger of becoming the new "top-down reorganisation". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser