Nick Clegg threatened to veto the Government's controversial health reforms as he warned David Cameron yesterday that the Liberal Democrats would adopt a more independent stance inside the Coalition.
After a drubbing in last Thursday's elections and the referendum on the voting system, Mr Clegg bowed to pressure from his party to reassert its separate identity from the Conservatives. The move also reflects the anger in Lib Dem circles that Mr Cameron allowed the ‘No’ camp in the referendum battle to launch personal attacks on Mr Clegg for “broken promises” such as the rises in VAT and university tuition fees, which are government policies.
“Two people can play hardball,” one Clegg ally said yesterday. “At some point there will be a story to tell about how we stopped the Tories privatising the NHS.”
In an email to all Liberal Democrat members, Mr Clegg admitted he was “deeply disappointed” by a “bad set of results” last week. In a nod to his internal critics, he said: “I think it is clear that we need to do more to show people in the party and beyond what we are doing in Government and, perhaps more importantly, why.”
After last week's referendum showed the public's limited appetite for constitutional reform, the Deputy Prime Minister has put health rather than an elected House of Lords at the top of his list of policy priorities. He wants to campaign on bread-and-butter issues such as the economy, education, welfare and health.
Yesterday, Mr Clegg declared that he would order his party's MPs and peers to vote down the NHS reforms unless there are “substantial, significant changes” to the proposals from the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.
“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 No 1 priority,” he told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show.
Mr Clegg said: “I am not going to ask Liberal Democrat MPs and peers to proceed with legislation unless I am satisfied that what these changes do is an evolutionary change in the NHS. What you will see in this legislation are clear guarantees that you are not going to have back-door privatisation of the NHS.”
Tory MPs will urge the PM on Wednesday not to give “sweeteners” to the Liberal Democrats to bolster Mr Clegg's position. While the Chancellor George Osborne accepted that the NHS blueprint would be amended, one Tory source suggested Health Secretary Andrew Lansley would fight to prevent his Bill being filleted by the Lib Dems.