It has been a bad week for Andrew Lansley. David Cameron may have said this week that the Health Secretary has his “full support”, but evidently not everyone in the cabinet feels the same. The influential website ConservativeHome has published an editorial calling for the bill to be scrapped. It claims that it was urged to do so by three Tory cabinet ministers.
This comes off the back of Rachel Sylvester’s article in the Times (£) on Tuesday, which revealed deep concern about the NHS bill from the inner circles of government. She quoted a Downing Street insider who said that Lansley “should be taken out and shot.”
Cameron moved to squash speculation that the Health Secretary is on his way out, throwing his weight behind efforts to get the bill on the statute books in the next few months. (It was defeated in the Lords this week). The Sylvester piece also made the point that the Prime Minister is remarkably loyal to Lansley, who was once his boss at the Conservative Research Department.
Yet it appears that some in the cabinet do not share Cameron’s conviction for pressing ahead with the bill. In today’s editorial, Tim Montgomerie writes:
Speaking to ConservativeHome, three Tory Cabinet ministers have now also rung the alarm bell. One was insistent the Bill must be dropped. Another said Andrew Lansley must be replaced. Another likened the NHS reforms to the poll tax. The consensus is that the Prime Minister needs an external shock to wake him to the scale of the problem.
The intervention from ConservativeHome is significant for several reasons. First and foremost is the fact that it was urged to make this intervention by members of the cabinet who feel that Cameron is not listening. A source at the website told the Guardian: “We have almost been instructed to write this.” If this is indeed the case, it is remarkable that cabinet members have reached such a level of frustration with Cameron’s refusal to ditch the bill.
Secondly, the website is generally taken as a good bellwether of grassroots Conservative opinion and is thus far more significant for the government than the on-going clamour from Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters. Montgomerie articulates the growing sense that the bill is, essentially, more trouble than it’s worth and “potentially fatal to the Conservative Party’s electoral prospects”:
By ‘succeeding’ in enacting a contentious Bill every inevitable problem that arises in the NHS in the years ahead will be blamed on it. That’s a heavy price to pay for a Bill that is neither transformational nor necessary.
Guido Fawkes notes that this may not be the majority view of Tory voters, who still tend to support NHS reform. He makes the point that “cabinet ministers are hardly the grassroots”. That may be the case, but this is still a highly significant intervention, reflecting the fact that the political pressure on this issue is not going anywhere.