“We’re fucked”. That, according to today’s Daily Telegraph, was David Cameron’s terse response after he was briefed on Andrew Lansley’s health reforms following the general election. His words have proved prophetic. The Tories now trail Labour by 15 points as the party that has “the best approach to the NHS” and just 20 per cent of voters believe the NHS is “safe in David Cameron’s hands”.
Cameron’s strong defence of private competition at yesterday’s PMQs suggests that he’s in no mood to compromise. But the yellow half of the coalition may yet force him to do so. Nick Robinson’s report last night that Nick Clegg is considering reneging his support for the bill is a sign of just how high tensions are running. For now, the Lib Dem leader is encouraging his peers to table further amendments to limit competition in an attempt to head off a revolt at his party’s spring conference next month. But should this route fail, who’s to say Clegg won’t choose the nuclear option? As Robinson reported yesterday, the Lib Dem leader “has told allies that he is losing more activists from the party on this issue than he did on tuition fees”.
Clegg was discredited when he gave his backing to the bill at the start of last year (Shirley Williams recently revealed that he hadn’t bothered to read it). But it is he, rather than Labour and the health unions, who now poses the greatest threat to its survival.