By Ian Dunt
Backbench Conservatives have rallied to defend Andrew Lansley's plans for NHS reform, after the proposals were substantially diluted by Nick Clegg.
The deputy prime minister has placed renewed focus on the 'totemic' issue since local election results demonstrated that voters are unconvinced by Liberal Democrat claims of acting as a moderating force in government.
Yesterday saw Mr Clegg offer his most significant concessions yet, promising to maintain the health secretary's duty to provide comprehensive care, scrap a timetable on the establishment of GPs' consortia and, most importantly, sending the bill back to committee so it can be scrutinised by MPs again - a process that will take around six months.
This final concession appears to have proved too much for Tory MP Nick De Bois, who sat on the committee scrutinising the bill before it moved forwards.
In a letter to fellow Conservative MPs, the Enfield North MP called for Tories to put forward their own red lines in what is increasingly becoming a tug-of-war between the two governing parties.
Mr De Bois argued that a 2013 deadline should be non-negotiable to save on administrative costs.
"Contrary to what is being said in public by others, this is a very reasonable period of time," Mr De Bois said.
The letter marks the first concrete sign of Tory resistance to the watering down of the bill, which will barely resemble its former self if all of Mr Clegg's demands are met.
Tory MPs were particularly aghast at comments from Mr Clegg to his parliamentary colleague that watchdog Monitor would be tasked with ensuring 'cooperation' rather than 'competition'.
Most Conservatives strongly support the bill and sympathise with health secretary Mr Lansley, who has gradually taken more of a back seat as David Cameron and Mr Clegg struggle to present leadership over the legislation.
Labour's tactic, table a recommittal motion for the bill, could delay the legislation by up to a year, would fatally undermine the position of health secretary Andrew Lansley and give opponents more time to plot a complete defeat of the legislation.
"People want choice - over their GP, where to give birth, which hospital to use. But providing that choice isn't the same as allowing private companies to cherry-pick NHS services," Mr Clegg said during his speech yesterday.
"It's not the same as turning this treasured public service into a competition-driven, dog-eat-dog market where the NHS is flogged off to the highest bidder."
Rachael Maskell, Unite national officer for health, said: "Nick Clegg's staggering comments today need urgent clarification.
"The threat of this bill has brought months of uncertainty to the national health service, so if the government is to send this bill back to the first base, that is welcome.
"However, it must do so with the bill stripped of its deadly proposals to put competition before care."