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11 March 2012

Could NHS reform be the Lib Dems’ downfall?

Dissent among party members over the health and social care bill has overshadowed spring conference.

By Daniel Trilling

This weekend’s Liberal Democrat party conference has been dominated by one issue: the NHS. Yesterday, it looked as if dissent among the party rank and file had been stifled, when a vote to “kill the bill” was blocked. A rival motion that called on Lib Dems to support the health and social care bill, put forward by Baroness Shirley Williams, was selected instead. This was a relief for Nick Clegg and the rest of the party leadership, under pressure from rebels who see the Lib Dems as having sold out their social democratic principles. Clegg, speaking to Sky News, was adamant that reform did not threaten the NHS:

Of course it’s unsettling when you see lots of people saying “it’s going to privatise the NHS and destroy the NHS”. If I thought it was going to privatise or destroy the NHS, it would never have seen the light of day.

But the reprieve was short lived: today, members partly rejected the “Shirley Williams motion” and refused to fully endorse the bill. Activists voted 314 against 270 to remove a crucial line calling for peers to support its final stages.

This will have little effect on the bill’s passing – Lib Dem members have not called on peers to block the bill, but in a sign of how unhappy many are, they can not bring themselves to support it, either.

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This is an embarrassment for Clegg, who will now be accused of supporting a reform that not even his own party members want. It’s an embarrassment for the party, too, who now appear to be pushing ahead with NHS “privatisation”, even though they can’t decide if they like it or not. If the Lib Dems were hoping this conference would galvanise public support, and start winning back voters who have deserted the party since 2010, they may have been sorely mistaken.