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Friday 20th May 2011 | 15:37
Following his party's trouncing in the elections and referendum on 5th May, Nick Clegg seems increasingly engaged in a pitched battle with Andrew Lansley over the NHS reforms. Paul Waugh highlights the increasingly frosty relations today. This is seen by many Conservatives as a disgraceful partisan fight to try and prove to the world the Clegg is still a Liberal Democrat, or even to seek revenge on his AV defeat – so much so that a possible urban myth has emerged around a member of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee referring to the need to take on the “yellow bastards” on healthcare. What is clear from such meetings however, and comments from the likes of right-wing MP Peter Bone, is a rallying behind Lansley, who they see as having acted honourably – and Clegg, having voted for the proposals on the second reading, dishonourably.
The Conservatives will want to be careful on NHS reform. Earlier in the week, I commented on the extent to which Lord Ashcroft’s poll showed them underperforming among key ‘Conservative Considerer’ voters on crime; those who thought about voting Tory in 2010, but decided against it. Exactly the same is true on ‘improving the NHS’ – where are Priority Comparison Index shows reflects both the importance of the issue to these voters, and the extent to which the Conservatives aren’t seen as making it a priority.
The focus groups conducted by Lord Ashcroft’s study were even more revealing – the report states confusion among both Conservative voters and considerers:
There was a good deal of uncertainty and concern about the proposed structural reforms, particularly over whether GPs were the right people to be managing such large budgets, and some were worried that the plans would involve “privatisation”. Nobody understood how the proposals were intended to benefits patients. “They’re scrapping PCTs and giving more power to GPs. I think it’s a bad idea – they’re got a lot on their plate.”
This confusion is shown in YouGov’s most recent poll on the health reforms. Overall, it showed opposition hardening – with net approval of the proposals to replace PCTs with GP consortia having fallen from -25% to -30% since April. While opposition is concentrated among Labour and Liberal Democrat voters, net approval among Conservative voters has fallen from +29% to +20%. While half of Conservatives approve of the plans – 3 in 10 do not. This is far from a ringing endorsement.
Indeed, there has been a 5 point rise in the number of people wanting the reforms abandoned entirely, a view that now sits just 3 points behind ‘continue with the reforms, but make some changes to address people’s criticisms’. Just 4% of respondents think the reforms should proceed unaltered.
Even among Conservative voters, just 8% support the undiluted bill, with 7 in 10 wanting changes.
We have previously written about the risks to both Nick Clegg and David Cameron in the healthcare debate. The most recent data on the debate however, suggests that David Cameron should pay heed to the warnings of Nick Clegg and his “bastards”, inglorious as their post-election motives may be, rather than his uncompromising right.
Cameron’s drive to repaint the Conservatives as the ‘party of the NHS’ were seen by many as the most important aspect of ‘detoxifying’ their brand. On such a crucial issue, he will want to tread with care - and bring the public with him.