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In another sign of strife at the heart of Britain’s Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has threatened to instruct his MPs and peers to vote against the Health and Social Care Bill unless it is substantially altered.
In its current form, the bill gives local doctors more control over the health budget and introduces greater competition into Britain’s nationalized healthcare system. Critics, including the opposition Labour Party, argue that the bill could lead to the backdoor privatization of the National Health Service. Doubts have also been raised regarding the ability of local doctors to make effective budgetary decisions. Because of a torrent of opposition to the bill, the government is proceeding slowly and a date has yet to be set for the bill’s final consideration by the House of Commons.
Speaking on the BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show, Clegg asserted that the government’s decision to slow down the bill’s progress was more than just a political stunt. “This is not a cosmetic exercise. There will be substantial, significant changes to the legislation. As far as Government legislation is concerned, no bill is better than a bad one, and I want to get this right. Protecting the NHS, rather than undermining it, is now my number one priority,” he said.
He went on to say that he could not ask Liberal Democrat peers and MPs to vote for the proposals “unless I personally am satisfied that what these changes do is an evolutionary change in the NHS and not a disruptive revolution.”
In the aftermath of last week’s failed Alternative Vote referendum and massive Liberal Democrat losses in the local government elections, Clegg has come under pressure to differentiate himself from his Conservative coalition partners. By adopting a tough stance on the NHS reforms, he no doubt hopes to mollify the increasingly jittery members of his own party.
Clegg’s intervention puts the Conservatives in an awkward position. If they cede too much ground to the Liberal Democrats, it will increase dissatisfaction among rank-and-file Tories, many of whom are just as hostile to the coalition as their Liberal Democrat counterparts. At the same time, if the Liberal Democrats all vote against the bill, it would likely fail to pass and the coalition would be dealt a blow from which it would be difficult to recover. The coming weeks will likely see a great deal of behind-the-scenes horsetrading as the coalition tries to thrash out a compromise that will satisfy both camps. David Cameron and Nick Clegg will have their work cut out for them as they try to steer the coalition between Scylla and Charybdis.