Sketch: The neverending jeering of Andrew Lansley

Another tough day at the office for Andrew Lansley
Another tough day at the office for Andrew Lansley

There was nowhere the health secretary would less like to be than the Commons this afternoon.

By Alex Stevenson

Speaker John Bercow may have his detractors, but his revival of the 'urgent question' - a formerly neglected bit of the Commons rulebook which summons ministers to parliament at a moment's notice - should see him deservedly enter the history books.

There Lansley stood, head bowed at the despatch box, having got no further than "Mr Speaker" before being interrupted by non-stop jeering. On the television, I'm told, it sounded like a neverending cavalcade of mockery. In the chamber it was a bit more complex. Labour MPs, unable to contain their delight, seemed to voice their joy at Lansley's discomfort in a sort of non-l scorn. Tory MPs countered by 'hear-hearing' their minister loyally. The opposition latched on to this, offering some sarcastic 'hear-hearing' of their own. Ben Bradshaw, Labour's last culture secretary, animatedly flapped his arms up and down in a 'higher, higher!' gesture.

Truly excruciating for the health secretary. He was supposed to be giving a speech to the Local Government Association, after all. That audience wouldn't have shouted back. Instead he had to deal with the Commons chamber, which initially seemed incapable of listening to any remark he offered without descending into another bout of uncontrollable derision. "I am glad to have this opportunity..." he began, prompting another burst of cruel laughter.

The pesky Liberal Democrats were to blame for this debacle. Nick Clegg's embracing of NHS reform rebels has posed a major headache for Lansley and David Cameron. This is the sort of troublemaking which makes the Lib Dems such a thorn in the Tories' side. But the junior party were on their best behaviour today, nodding furiously when Lansley said the Lords was being used to improve the bill. Of course it was. The Lords is a means to an end for the Lib Dems, just as competition - so he insisted- is a means to an end for the health secretary.

What embarrassment, what humiliation. Lansley had been asked by his shadow, Andy Burnham, just when he had discovered that Clegg was making his very inconvenient move. The health secretary dodged the question, but couldn't avoid it when confronted once more by the supremely acidic Luciana Berger. She wanted to know whether the deputy prime minister's letter reflected government policy. Clegg's letter, Lansley replied, "accurately reflects the discussions the government's been having".

Even some Tories were baffled by this approach, but they chose to take out their frustrations on the Lib Dems. Nadine Dorries, who jumps at the slightest opportunity of some Lib Dem-bashing, asked: "Will somebody tell the deputy prime minister who is running this government?" Backbencher Peter Bone compared the Lib Dems' "well-known" election habit of saying different things at different ends of their constituency with their two-faced approach in the Commons chamber. This, Lansley replied sadly, is a coalition government. More's the pity.

Dennis Skinner dolloped a sizeable dose of his own brand of seething scorn on the "tin-pot Liberals", accusing them of trying to "save face" by seeking to push through "a few marginal shifts" which wouldn't make much difference. "These people should have opposed it from the very beginning," he shouted in finger-jabbing, red-faced fury.

This was but a brief respite for Lansley, who faced question after question from unconvinced opposition MPs. It was not the first time the health secretary has been the subject of ridicule as a result of his NHS reforms. Nor will it, in all probability, be the last. He cuts an abject figure, describing his many concessions and retreats on the health and social care bill as "improvements". Bradshaw wondered what Lansley thought in his "darkest moments". So do we all; the innermost feelings of the health secretary will, one day perhaps, be the subject of a fascinating book. For now, though, the misery continues. 


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