By Tim Hardy
All eyes are on the Liberal Democrats now as they prepare for their conference in Gateshead.
The government has lost its appeal on the NHS Risk Register Publication. Lansley has acted illegally in refusing to disclose the dangers of his chaotic, top-down restructuring of the National Health Service and now the coalition can no longer demand that the bill be voted through by MPs ignorant of its risks.
Fewer than a third of Liberal Democrats support the bill. Nearly three-quarters think the party will be damaged by it; 42% think the damage will be serious. But still the majority are willing to delude themselves into backing it if Shirley Williams and Nick Clegg can salve their consciences with fine words.
Polly Toynbee today makes short shrift of Shirley Williams and all the other Liberal Democrat grandees who have spent the last few months grandstanding in the media about the good they are doing – then vote against their own amendments.
On Thursday Shirley Williams led her erstwhile rebels into the government lobby to vote for hospitals’ right to use 49% of beds for private patients. Baroness Jenkin, PR consultant and wife of Bernard Jenkin MP, gloated on Twitter, “Just walking through the lobby with Shirley Williams.” Ha ha! Baroness Williams complained of the Twitter storm that greeted her buckling on the NHS bill. What did she expect when she marched her people out to rebel – and then turned tail? “Sheep in sheep’s clothing,” said Labour as they watched the Lib Dems troop through the lobby this week, abruptly abandoning close co-operation. Serial displays of sheepdom have led to the bizarre spectacle of Lib Dem peers voting in several cases against amendments they themselves tabled, obediently herded into the opposite lobby by their whips.
She warns that failure to stop the health bill will come to define the Lib Dems.
The self-deception of the Liberal Democrat leadership has reached almost pathological levels. Tim Farron’s declares in the Guardian that he’s proud to be a Liberal because they feel bad about the evil they do, announcing “The Liberal Democrats have nothing to apologise for“.
We spend our time feeling guilty and beating ourselves up. Do you know what that proves? It proves that we are human, it proves we are decent, that there is something in our DNA as a party that means Lib Dems acquire and retain a conscience. That’s nice
The tears and fine words of a politician mean nothing. It is by their acts that they must be judged.
Clegg begged the question, what is the point of Liberal Democrats in office, when he told House magazine:
Let’s be blunt: I am asking, day in, day out, Liberal Democrat peers to vote on things that they wouldn’t do in a month of Sundays if it was a Liberal Democrat government.
Farron continues this pattern of deluded thinking, blaming Guardian readers for the health bill
I’m not going to pretend that the bill is perfect, it isn’t. For one, it would have never happened had Guardian readers held their nerve and voted Lib Dem to give us a majority in 2010.
Somehow I don’t think we will ever see a Liberal Democrat majority.
With an outright majority for either the Conservatives or Labour looking unlikely at the next election, another coalition will be necessary so Andy Burnham’s suggestion that Labour and the Liberal Democrats work together on dropping the bill can be seen as an opening move in those future negotiations.
His letter to grassroots Liberals is worth quoting in its entirety:
“I never expected to see the day when I could say, hand on heart, that I was more interested in events at a Lib Dem Spring Conference than the weekend’s football. But life’s full of surprises and that moment has arrived.
“It is no over-statement to say that this weekend’s gathering in Gateshead could determine the future of our country’s best-loved institution.
“As you prepare for the weekend, I wanted to make a direct appeal to the grassroots members of your party: please stand out against the current direction of reform and stand up for the NHS model we all have been able to depend on and trust for 63 years. Between our two parties, we just about have the power to stop a Bill that will cause it great damage. I also wanted to issue an invitation to those of you who feel the same as us to help us build an alternative vision for an integrated NHS in this century of the ageing society.
“I feel sure your President Tim Farron spoke for many Liberal Democrats in saying the Bill should have been dropped. Only three weeks ago, Lady Williams argued that the third part of the Bill, the competition chapters, should be deleted.
“If our two parties had worked together on this aim, there’s a fair chance we could have achieved it and mitigated the damage. That’s frustrating. But it’s not too late. Parliament is sleepwalking into the looming disaster for the NHS of this defective Bill entering the Statute Book but it is within your power to stop it.
“It is clear that many prominent Liberal Democrats, in private if not in public, consider this Bill to be a dud. I feel certain that the long-term best interests of your Party are better served by acknowledging that and doing something about it, rather than acting out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to the Coalition. In doing so, you would of course be implementing the letter of the Coalition Agreement.
“We are disappointed by this week’s events in the Lords. We feel many of your Peers and MPs have let you down. But next week we are giving the Commons a final chance to drop the Bill. Government backbenchers have denied 170,000 people, who signed the Drop the Bill e-petition, the debate they deserve. Labour will correct that by forcing a debate and vote next Tuesday afternoon in the House of Commons. When you see your MPs this weekend, please ask them to put the NHS first and join us in that vote.
“I have no doubt that some will read my motive in writing this blog as a tactic for narrow party gain. There’s not much I can do about that, save to say it’s simply not the case. The truth is Labour’s narrow political interests are probably best served by the Coalition simply ploughing on with this disastrous Bill. But, even so, I desperately want them to stop.
“I know the NHS can only be preserved for the rest of this century by building a broad consensus that goes beyond any one Party. Nothing matters more to me than protecting the NHS and that is my motivation in making this appeal to you.
“We should work together to build a new coalition for the NHS – of patients, professionals and people from all parties who share the same view – to protect it from market forces and the money motive running riot.
“Please give that some thought and discuss it in Gateshead this weekend. It’s important as more cross-Party consensus is going to be needed if we are to enable the NHS to make some of the difficult service changes it needs to make to have a care model ready for the challenges of this century.
“It probably goes without saying that you didn’t agree with everything Labour did in Government. The NHS isn’t perfect but, by the time we left Government, it was judged one of the world’s best healthcare systems with the lowest ever waiting lists and highest ever patient satisfaction. This NHS model which your Party helped conceive isn’t broken. In fact, it’s the envy of the world and the answer, not the barrier, to meeting the challenges of the 21st century.
“I know that many Lib Dem activists know in their heart of hearts that this Bill is bad for the NHS. This weekend in Gateshead, please tell that truth to power.”
On Sunday, the Liberal Democrat conference is allowing thirty minutes for members to debate the NHS bill.
Early hints to the press suggest that Clegg’s address to the conference will borrow from Cameron and he will advise his party not to look back but to look forward to the “better future we are building for our children.”
One can only hope that his attempts to scratch a line in the scorched earth of his broken promises will backfire, rousing grassroots Liberal Democrats to do the right thing, ignore their toxic leadership and vote for the motion to drop the bill.
The Guardian noted yesterday that Andrew George was wrong when he said it was too late to stop the bill. It can be done. Such measures may be unusual but the constitutional outrage of the Health and Social Care bill demands nothing less.