Shirley Williams, the Liberal Democrat grandee, spoke on Saturday of her anger over personal attacks unleashed by opponents of the NHS reforms, as Lib Dem delegates dropped a vote on killing the health bill.
She said she had been falsely accused of “stitching up” a deal to save the controversial bill and described how she was fighting an “uphill battle for the truth”, challenging lies about the legislation on Twitter and the media.
Baroness Williams, initially an opponent of the NHS reforms, has become a supporter in recent weeks following more than a thousand amendments in the Lords which she says have changed the bill “significantly”.
However, critics claim she has been used by the Lib Dem leadership to usher the bill into law. While delegates at the Lib Dem spring conference in Gateshead decided against voting on a “kill the bill” emergency motion, there is still considerable anger in the party.
More than 270 delegates voted in favour of the “kill the bill” motion in a sign that will worry the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, as he tries to carry his party with him on the policy.
Instead of the “kill the bill” motion, activists will vote on the alternative, backed by the leadership, which suggests the bill as amended should now be passed. Although it is possible that this motion could be defeated, this would be far less embarrassing for Clegg than a vote to drop the bill altogether.
One of the most vociferous critics of the bill, Charles West, a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Shrewsbury, said he believed Williams was wrong. “I think Shirley Williams is a very able politician, but she doesn’t understand the NHS or the health bill,” West said. He added that she had been persuaded that “it will all be fine” but that she was “wrong on the details”.
West’s comments followed a row on Twitter in which party members accused the leadership of manipulating a “national treasure” to support the health bill. Williams responded by saying she was “against personal attacks” and believed her critics were “behind the facts” on the bill.
Talking to delegates, she said: “We are fighting an uphill battle for the truth, to be able to base people’s opinions on facts, and not on the stuff they have presented on Twitter and tweet and, dare I say it, the new social network, which is known as twist.
“My view about the coalition, which is bloody difficult, is you get in very early on legislation you don’t like which is why the prelegislative phase is very difficult. It is damned hard work but we know now we can change legislation out of all recognition.”
Williams also cited a column by the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee as an example of the “tribalism trumping truth”. Williams told a fringe meeting: “I have to say this morning I am extremely angry. Yesterday you may have read in the Guardian a story from Polly Toynbee which began with the following sentence: ‘Yesterday Shirley Williams led her erstwhile rebels into the government lobby to vote for a hospital’s rights to use 49% of beds for private patients.’
“There has never been a right for hospitals to offer 49% of their places for private patients. The so-called 49% is a myth or, to put it in non-parliamentary language, a lie.
“Now, I know Polly well. She’s a very able journalist. Either she just did not look at the detail and therefore is able to say that in the Guardian, or she did look at the detail and decided that tribalism should trump truth.”
Williams added: “I want to see Polly Toynbee in the Guardian‘s Corrections and Clarifications column.”
On a visit to Siemens in Newcastle, Clegg said he hoped that the party would in time see what changes had been made to the health reforms and the need for legislation. He said: “I think it is quite right that people have a look at it.
“My own view is that when people look at what we have done – rather than what we are alleged to have done, because many of the critics I speak to about the bill, when I ask them if they have read the health bill, they say they haven’t – I think there is a big gap between what people think the bill is going to do and what it actually says.”
Paul Burstow, the Lib Dem health minister criticised by several colleagues for failing to halt the bill sooner, pleaded with activists to recognise that reform was needed because of a “postcode lottery” in the NHS.”
However other senior members of the party continue to criticise the bill. John Pugh, a Lib Dem MP, said: “I know Nick Clegg says we should stop looking in the rear view mirror. But if you don’t look in it sometimes you end up heading into more car crashes.”