Clegg, Cameron and Lansley fight for NHS reforms

By Ian Dunt

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Andrew Lansley have presented a united front as they try to defend their plans for NHS reforms.

In a sign of how seriously the government is taking opposition to the plans, the three men appeared before NHS staff to sell the proposals.

Glossy flyers were handed out saying “we love the NHS” as Mr Cameron told the audience that “the status quo is not an option”.

In a conciliatory speech, the prime minister added: “We are taking this time to pause, to listen and to reflect and to improve our NHS modernisation plans.

“Where there are good suggestion to improve the legislation those changes will be made.”

Mr Clegg said: “I care more about getting this right than just getting it done. Let me repeat: there will be no privatisation of the NHS.

“No to a US-style healthcare system where they check your credit card before they check your pulse”.

Health experts, doctors, and staffing unions have all raised objections to Mr Lansley’s plans, which would see GPs consortia commission purchases and embed competition in the NHS, with more freedom for private firms.

The government effectively put the bill on pause last Monday, with Mr Lansley making a humiliating trip to the Commons to inform MPs that some criticisms of his plans were “genuine”.

Mr Clegg admitted that there could be “substantial” changes to the bill yesterday.

During the debate the prime minister dropped heavy hints that ministers would be willing to expand the GPs’ commissioning bodies to include nurses, medicinal experts and local councillors.

That would constitute a significant concession. The idea of expanding the consortia was voiced by MPs on the health committee this week and was supported as an amendment by Lib Dem members at their spring convention.

“If the prime minister is serious about listening rather than PR spin, people will expect root and branch changes to his NHS plansm,” said shadow health secretary John Healey.

“But while they claim to be listening, the Tory-led government is in fact still ploughing on with their NHS reorganisation.”

Both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg have their own reasons to be nervous about the way the debate over the NHS reforms has taken place.

Mr Clegg’s own party overwhelmingly oppose the plan and voted to oppose it at its spring conference. But the deputy prime minister is understood to back it and can often be seen nodding his head enthusiastically when Mr Cameron defends it at prime minister’s questions.

With the issue further highlighting how far to the right of his party Mr Clegg stands, he will be clear to show rank-and-file Liberal Democrats that being in coalition gives them the chance to water down Conservative legislation.

Mr Cameron will be concerned that the five years he spent ‘detoxifying’ the Tory brand are being put at threat by a reform programme that is considered very market-orientated.

With Labour seen as the party that can traditionally be trusted with the NHS, Mr Cameron went out of his way to highlight that his approach to the institution heralded a new form of Toryism.

That political ground is at risk of being lost unless the government can alter the way the debate is being conducted.