Disaster for Clegg as Lib Dems vote not to support NHS reform

The long weekend: Clegg hopes to survive without any rebellions.
The long weekend: Clegg had hoped to survive without any rebellions.

By Ian Dunt

The Liberal Democrat rank and file refused to support the government's controversial NHS reforms today, in a move which will prove highly embarrassing to Nick Clegg.

Delegates at the party's spring conference in Gateshead voted by 314 to 270 against calling on Lib Dem peers to support the bill at third reading.

The vote effectively puts the party on the fence and means Labour can now claim that even the Conservatives' coalition partners do not support the bill.

It is unlikely to affect how Liberal Democrat peers votes in the Lords, but will increase the pressure on them to delay the vote until the risk register is published.

"It is not a Liberal Democrat health bill but it is a better bill because of the Liberal Democrats, a better bill because of you," Mr Clegg told delegates during his conference speech this afternoon.

The deputy prime minister did not outline how the leadership would respond to the vote, however.

The development was particularly frustrating for Mr Clegg, given that he had managed to face down a more substantial potential rebellion yesterday which could have seen the party actually oppose the bill.

It means the party's pro- and anti-NHS reform forces have effectively cancelled each other out and that the party now neither supports nor opposes the health and social care bill.

"Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem leadership have let down their party and let down the country," said Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader.

"The Lib Dems have made a choice – in return for ministerial ambition they sacrificed their values to prop up David Cameron's Tory government."

Delegates voted for two separate motions yesterday – one calling on the government to drop the health and social care bill altogether and the other arguing enough amendments had been made for the Liberal Democrats to now support it.

The supportive motion lost by 246 to 270 votes in the first round of voting but won by 309 to 280 votes once the second preference votes had been counted, under the AV system.

It was then debated this morning, but anti-NHS reform campaigners managed to reject its central demand, thereby triggering a crisis for the party leadership.

Yesterday's vote also had counter-intuitive political effects. The leadership's compromises, which saw it adopt two rebel amendments, now binds the Liberal Democrats to limiting the role of the private sector in the NHS.

That runs entirely counter to Andrew Lansley and David Cameron's vision of the health service and it also puts the Liberal Democrats in a far more radical position than Labour, which accepts limited private sector involvement.

Mr Clegg used the conference to assure party members the bill would not privatise the NHS.

"I'm determined to make sure the government reaches out to all the family of professions within the NHS, not in a spirit of rancour but in a genuine spirit of co-operation," he said during a question and answer session.

"If I felt it was privatising the NHS or tearing it limb from limb, it would never have seen the light of day."


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