Liberal Democrats have voted against holding a debate calling for the government’s NHS shakeup to be dropped.
Delegates at the party’s spring conference in Gateshead decided not to back an emergency motion urging the withdrawal or defeat of the health and social care bill.
The decision is a victory for the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. Liberal Democrat leaders were desperate to avoid deserting the much-criticised shakeup of the NHS in England at the last minute after nearly a year of stormy parliamentary passage and amendments.
Party activists have instead chosen to debate the pro-leadership Shirley Williams health motion on Sunday. Although it is possible that the Williams motion could be defeated, having the conference vote against a pro-bill motion would be less embarrassing for Clegg than having it vote in favour of a motion saying the bill should be dropped.
Clegg said on Saturday that the bill, which is opposed by staff bodies including the British Medical Association and several royal colleges, has changed “out of all recognition”.
“I think it’s a really good thing that Liberal Democrats worry as much as we do about something as precious as the NHS,” he said.
“I think it would be a dereliction of duty if we didn’t really really examine hard whether the changes we’ve introduced in the NHS are the right ones.”
He said the changes made sure that competition and commercial interests would not undermine the NHS and would bring about “greater equality” for patients.
But union leaders warned the party faced a wipeout at the next election over its support for the bill.
Williams said: “The facts are the Lib Dems have hugely altered this bill to make a way that makes an acceptable, genuine health service.
“I am sorry about how we got here. But now we’re here, we’ve done huge amounts to reform the bill and make it back to something that supports and doesn’t undermine the NHS.”