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12 March 2011

How the Lib Dem spring conference is divided on the NHS

Nick Clegg urges members to “hold your nerve” ahead of session on flashpoint issue of NHS reform.

By Samira Shackle

UPDATE: The conference has overwhelmingly voted in favour of the amended motion. More follows

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Nick Clegg has urged Liberal Democrat members to “hold your nerve” in a rallying speech at the party’s spring conference in Sheffield.

Thousands of demonstrators are expected to descend on the conference. Clegg acknowledged that this is “difficult” for the party as “some of our proudest moments have come on marches”, but said that “with power comes protest”.

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Despite Clegg’s best attempts to downplay tensions over the National Health Service – he said that it was not going to be “the gunfight at the OK corral” – this is likely to be the big flashpoint of the weekend.

The former MP and member of the party’s influential Federal Policy Committee Dr Evan Harris will call on Lib Dem ministers to resist the coalition’s plans to hand control of 80 per cent of the NHS commissioning budget to GPs.

He and the veteran party member Shirley Williams have tabled an emergency motion, holding that the government’s aspirations for health “can be achieved without the damaging and unjustified market-based approach that is proposed”.

It calls for the “complete ruling out of any competition based on price to prevent loss-leading corporate providers undercutting NHS tariffs”.

While Clegg has stressed that there is common ground and says he is “very relaxed and very positive” about the issue, the motion could put him in an awkward position. If the conference backs the move this morning, he will be expected to reflect these concerns in the Commons.

Harris sets out the battle lines quite clearly in a piece in the Guardian this morning:

It is a simple fact that when the party voted to endorse the coalition agreement, it did not endorse these new policies: they did not feature. Of course, Nick Clegg has room to manoeuvre within the agreement, or within existing party policies, or on minor matters from time to time. But he should not have the scope to whip our parliamentarians into the lobbies to support major proposals that have been specifically rejected by the party.

The motion will be debated from 10.45am – 11.45am.