In his second answer at prime minister’s questions today, David Cameron asked a question of Ed Miliband:
As we are being kept here to vote on the publication of the NHS risk register, why don’t you ask a question about that?
It seemed like a strange tactic. Why would the prime minister, who has been ordered by the information commissioner to publish the document detailing the potential risks of his NHS bill, want to bring up the fact that he is refusing to comply? Surely this was a subject on which Labour, not the government, holds the upper hand?
Only after the prime minister had put the challenge several times did we find out why he was so keen to talk about it.
When Andy Burnham returned to the health beat for Labour, some in Andrew Lansley’s team were delighted. This is the man, they pointed out, who said he would not ringfence spending on the NHS. He even said that to do so would be “irresponsible” – hardly a vote-winning tactic.
David Cameron clearly thinks the same thing – that by shifting the focus of the health debate onto Burnham and his refusal to promise extra money for the NHS, he can nullify the controversy surrounding his health bill.
That is why, several times during today’s session of prime minister’s questions, Cameron insisted:
That’s what you get if you get Labour: no money, no reform, no good health service.
Last week, we were told that the government was going to support the Lord Mackay amendment to the health bill, which adds in a clause saying the health secretary “retains ultimate responsibility” for the health service.
This was supposed to have won the support of Baroness Williams and other rebellious Lib Dem peers who have been concerned about the fact that the bill as it stands removes the legal duty on the secretary of state to provide a health service free at the point of contact.
But today, Lord Howe, the government health minister in the Lords, asked Lord Mackay and all other peers to withdraw their amendements for further consideration. They want to reach a compromise that all sides can agree on.
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.