Former health secretary Alan Milburn has hit out at the government's NHS "car crash" – but saved some criticism for Labour's response to the "open goal".
The ex-Cabinet minister, who served as health secretary from 1999 to 2003, said the Conservatives had lost their opportunity to quicken the pace of public service reform.
David Cameron has "his own neglect" and health secretary Andrew Lansley's "foolish bout of policy-wonking" to blame for the NHS reform U-turn which concluded earlier this week, Mr Milburn wrote in an article for the Telegraph newspaper.
"The temptation to elevate short-term politics above long-term policy proved too much for both David Cameron and Nick Clegg," he wrote.
"Cameron has returned to his original strategy of playing safe on the NHS in order to decontaminate the Tory brand."
Mr Milburn warned that the NHS faced a major funding deficit which would have to be resolved with "a very large cheque".
"Sorry, George," he added, "but the cash you were saving in your pre-election Budget for tax cuts will now have to be spent on a bail-out for the health service".
Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg had persuaded Mr Milburn to take on a role as the coalition's social mobility adviser, to the frustration of some Labour activists.
But the government sought to distance itself from his comments on the NHS.
"Eight years ago Alan Milburn tried to reform the NHS but failed to deliver the progress necessary because he was blocked by Gordon Brown," a Department for Health spokesperson said.
"Other former Labour health ministers - and many professional bodies - support these reforms as a necessary evolution. We can't afford to miss another opportunity to improve the NHS."
His critique of the opposition's response to the coalition's NHS retreat prompted a veiled attack on Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow health secretary John Healey, however.
"The temptation, of course, is for Labour to retreat to the comfort zone of public sector producer-interest protectionism – and there were signs of that in the party's response to the government’s U-turn this week," he wrote.
"It would be unwise, in my view, for Labour to concede rather than contest the reform territory. It now has an opportunity to restake its claim to be the party of progressive, radical reform. It is only when we are that we win."