He may once have boasted that Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms were in the Liberal Democrat manifesto but Nick Clegg is still hailing their dilution as his biggest “victory” since the coalition began. The cause of such excitement is the publication by Steve Field, the GP who led the government’s “listening exercise”, of a report into the reforms, although most of the key changes were announced in David Cameron’s speech last week. To summarise, the 2013 deadline for the creation of GP-led consortiums will be “relaxed”; membership of the consortiums will be opened up to hospital doctors and nurses, and the main duty of Monitor, the health regulator, will be to promote “integration”, not “competition”.
To the consternation of the Tories, Clegg has published a “scorecard” showing that the Lib Dems have secured 11 of the 13 changes demanded by its conference. In the Independent, a jubilant Shirley Williams declares that, thanks to her party’s efforts, “the Prime Minister will be able to say with confidence that the NHS is safe in the Coalition’s hands”.
More cautious types are reminding the Lib Dems that the political wrangling isn’t over yet. Clegg, Cameron and Andrew Lansley will issue their own response to the report at a joint event tomorrow, and the Tory right are using the intervening period to demand a limit to the concessions.
Then there’s the question of NHS funding, a landmine primed to explode at some point in the near future. As I noted last week, Cameron is on course to break his pledge to increase spending on the health service – higher inflation means that it faces a real-terms cut. The coalition’s NHS woes are far from over.
But it would still be churlish to deny that this is some of the best press the Lib Dems have had since the coalition was formed. The government’s decision to “modify” its £26,000 benefits cap has already been successfully spun as another victory for Clegg’s party. Whether the voters will give them any credit, however, remains to be seen.