During much of last week, senior Lib Dems were frantically trying to finalise their agenda for next week’s conference. One of the major sticking points was a proposed motion on the health bill, brought by Richard Kemp, Lib Dem leader at the Local Government Assocation.
Such a motion caused a serious headache for the coalition at this year’s spring conference, when Lib Dem members voted against the health bill. On that occasion, the vote was a spur to the party leadership to push for significant changes to be made to the bill. But this time, with Nick Clegg having chalked up those amendments as a win for the Lib Dems, party elders are loath to revisit the issue once again.
The leadership thought it had found a workable compromise when it downgraded the motion, which would have to be voted on, to a Q&A session, with a general debate afterwards. Kemp appealed, but was defeated and so that Q&A session will be held on Tuesday.
Kemp himself, you might think, would be thoroughly fed up with this snub. But apparently not. Here is what he says on his blog:
Some people think that it would have been better to have yet another resolution. That is not, I sense, the mood of the non-conference going party. They believe that the amendment has worked and that although Lib Dems could not in any way be described as fervent supporters for all the measures in the bill there was more than enough there in which we could take pride to allow us to support it.
Why the phlegmatic reaction? It is possibly because, as one senior Lib Dem told me this week, there are parts of the bill the party still doesn’t like, but they are now relying on party peers to make those changes.
Shirley Williams recently called the bill “flawed”, writing in the Observer that it threatened the NHS as envisioned by Clement Attlee in 1945. She will now bring amendments in the Lords, most significantly to reinstate the legal duty on the health secretary to provide a health service free at the point of use.
The government will fight them hard, but Lib Dems are quietly confident that they can get the changes made, and do not want to create a big fuss about it, especially having told voters they have already won a victory by changing the bill.
And they have good reason to be confident. When I put it to someone in the know recently that the health department wouldn’t really create a huge fuss if Baroness Williams et al insisted on the main amendment, that person agreed.