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Mar. 19th, 2012


So today we get to witness something we don't often get to see: changes being made to the most startling public-sector edifice ever created that will lead to an irrevocable and fatal shift in its priorities and the end of its functioning as we know it—a proud boast for any government, but particularly for one that made such a point of saying that that edifice was safe in its hands.

It's always been known that the Conservative party are like a dog on heat with the NHS; they just can't help themselves—it's a “60-year mistake”, and so on—and the trick has always been simply not to bend over in front of them. One day maybe someone's memoirs will reveal precisely why the Lib Dems decided to kneel on the NHS's neck and hold it down so the Conservatives could finally get on with it, but for now it mystifies everyone (including quite a few gratified but baffled Tories) why we're faced with the unedifying sight of a shoal of Lib Dem peers, many of whom know precisely what these changes mean, nonetheless trooping glumly through the division lobbies in support of them because their leaders and whips have told them crossly that it's for the sake of the party.

It's said that the Lib Dems have calculated, as has No. 10, that the opposition to this step in the privatisation of the NHS will blow over and waft away after the bill is actually passed. It's this kind of brilliant and canny political calculation that neatly sums up all the strengths of this government.

The day before the bill is due to be passed in the Lords—after which it will skip gaily back down the corridor to the Commons, to be welcomed with open arms by the government who intend to start implementing it almost immediately—Baroness Thornton, Labour front-bencher on the bill, went public with an assessment of the government's conduct that would get her sternly told off by other noble Lords if she were to voice it in the Chamber:
“This is an ideologically driven bill and the Lib Dems capitulated. Ministers lied to get it through. I know it's unusually unparliamentary language but I am really horrified. They have sold us a pup."

[She] says that although the bill has been amended more than 300 times, its pro-market measures remain largely intact and the health service will be end up as "a terrible bureaucratic, expensive and fragmented NHS"...

Her ire is particularly directed at the Lib Dem peers Lady Williams and Lord Clement-Jones. After weeks of working with the pair on defeating the government over the pro-competition parts of the bill, Thornton said the two had pulled out just before the crucial Lib Dem spring conference...

Instead of shielding the NHS from the full force of EU competition law, Clement-Jones did a deal with the government so that ministers would offer a “strong statement” on the need to take patients' interests into account—arguing that this would insulate the health service in court against legal challenge. Thornton said a minister's “strong statement” was not likely to be “worth much”, adding it would mean “the proposed protection comes when legal action starts to take place. I would prefer the protection to be in the bill to stop it ever getting to court.”[Guardian]
It's not clear exactly why Lord Clement-Jones was chosen for this job in the first place. He is perhaps best known for having tabled on behalf of the entertainment industry an amendment to the Labour government's Digital Economy Bill that was actually more hawkish than the government's own proposals, and which posed a direct threat to ISP freedom. The government delightedly accepted his amendment on the spot. A fortnight later he tried to amend his own amendment, after uproar not only from ISPs but from his own Lib Dem colleagues who understood more about the implications of his proposals for internet freedom than he did. However, the government weren't interested and he had rather ignominiously to withdraw. This debacle led to Lord Clement-Jones being nominated as the ISP Association's Villain of the Year, for introducing his web-blocking amendment “without sufficient research or understanding of the consequences”.

Heroic failures aside, though, It's not as if this is a straightforwardly partisan issue. In fact, if Members of all parties, in both Houses, with interests in private health companies were barred from voting on this legislation—that's any interests at all, not merely troughing so blatant that it even provokes the ire of the Daily Mail—then you'd likely see an extremely different result today. But then Parliament has never been very good at shame.


Oh look, an American trying to persuade fellow Americans of a thing that this country already knows to be true but is preparing to fling to the winds for some fucking reason:

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