Yesterday we had the big debate on the health bill. This is the one that has been stopped in its tracks by the government, for “pause and consultation”. The bill has gone through most Commons stages, though not all, and at some point will be fed to the House of Lords, who will no doubt fall upon it like a famished mongoose at an all-snake buffet. To put it another way, the bill (and its minister, Andrew Lansley) are in the position of bungee jumpers who have discovered that the chaps supposed to be looking after them have gone for their tea without remembering to haul them back up.
The debate was also supposed to be a crucial moment in the history of the coalition. The Lib Dems have decided they don’t like it, and want it changed. They are arguing that they have to have the concessions so that people will realise that as politicians they are tough, spinach-fed and six-pack-stomached – “ripped”, in modern parlance. They will demand what they want and fight if they don’t get it. Actually, in real life their position of strength is based on a position of weakness. Their message is: “We are so unpopular that you have to do what we tell you.” Nick Clegg is holding a gun to his own head, and saying: “Give us what we want, or the party gets it.”
John Healey, Labour’s health spokesman, gave a speech that was sort of okay. He, like everyone else, blamed Nick Clegg (who is also to blame for the recent dry weather). “The Lib Dems are in this up to their necks!” Even the Lib Dem minister in the health department, Paul Burstow, had supported in the House the very clauses that his party now wants changing.
Mr Healey’s problem is that his dislike of the bill comes a bit late. It was pointed out that at the beginning of the year he had called the government’s plans “comprehensive, consistent and coherent”.
This was a bit of a facer. So he replied like this: “Yes, they are comprehensive, consistent, coherent – and wrong!” Doesn’t quite work, does it? Like saying for instance that Einstein was the greatest thinker of our age – but bats.
Mr Healey finally managed to drag up a sort of compromise. There was nothing wrong with the general aims, he said. It’s just that what the government was doing was inconsistent with those aims.
Andrew Lansley, who is being hung on the line by David Cameron, had little to say. He tried the old fraudulent trick deployed by all politicians when the NHS crops up – accusing their opponents of having no regard for the caring, heroic NHS staff. He was interrupted by Toby Perkins of Chesterfield, who said it was marvellous that he liked the staff of the NHS, because they certainly didn’t like him.
We were all waiting to hear what the concessions might be. Instead Mr Lansley kept telling us what a terrific bill it all was. Angela Smith, for Labour, said that he was sticking to his guns. But what was he going to concede to the Lib Dems?
“It’s about the NHS!” replied Mr Lansley, a majestic non-answer, leaving us absolutely no wiser or better informed than we had been an hour before.