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9 May 2011

When Clegg was in favour of the NHS reforms

The Liberal Democrat leader insisted the plans were in his party’s manifesto.

By George Eaton

As part of a desperate attempt to restore his political credibility, Nick Clegg has threatened to veto the government’s NHS bill unless substantial changes are made. But the inconvenient truth remains that the Lib Dem leader was in favour of the reforms before he was against them.

In an interview on The Andrew Marr Show on 23 January, Clegg was asked whether the plan was in the Lib Dem manifesto. He replied: “Actually, funnily enough it was. Indeed, it was. We certainly said we were going to get rid of primary care trusts. We said we were going to get rid of strategic health authorities.”

He went on to defend GP commissioning on the basis that those “who know the patients best” should play “a greater role in deciding where that patient goes, where the money goes in the system”. Clegg concluded: “I agree it’s an ambitious programme of reform – but over time I think it’ll leave patients with a feeling that they are at the centre of it. They’re not constantly at the beck and call in a system over which they’ve got very little control.”

But yesterday on the same programme, he argued: “I think what we should now do is – which is a change – is an evolutionary approach that only happens . . . where people are willing and able to take on these new changes. If not, we shouldn’t be forcing the pace according to artificial deadlines in a calendar.”

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Now, you can argue that Clegg (for once) has made a U-turn in the right direction. But his behaviour reinforces the impression of the Deputy Prime Minister as a man who forms his opinions on the basis of political calculation, rather than principled conviction.

What’s more, awkwardly for the Lib Dems, not one their MPs voted against the Health and Social Care Bill at its second reading in January, although two members, John Pugh and Andrew George, abstained. It was left to the former MP Evan Harris and Shirley Williams to lead the charge against the reforms. The question remains: why did Clegg wait so long to sound the alarm?