The internal politics of Nick Clegg’s decision to co-author a letter to activists with Baroness Shirley Williams are not hard to understand. Left-wing activists and the professional NHS staff interests amongst the membership would and could still deliver a stinging rebuke to his Leadership through a wrecking motion at Gateshead next week.
Judging defeat certain, and no doubt encouraged by threats of resignations, defections and ritual suicide by members of his ‘peer-group’, he has bravely decided to give in to their demands to present a united front.
Charitably we judge he may have been poorly advised. Nick’s preference for conflict-avoidance and invertebrates in his inner circle, is far more consistent than his public statements. His Leadership bid was so anaemic that a substantial opening lead was eroded to the point that Chris Huhne’s ‘triumph of the will’ campaign was only thwarted by a postal strike.
Rather than reform the party prior to the last election in the manner of Blair or Cameron, Clegg chose instead to genuflect to the self-regarding piffle of the party’s sense of it’s own exceptionalism – most often articulated through the notion that a few hundred activists meeting twice a year in an empty hall have opinions more valid than the 60,000 (or so) party members who can’t afford a holiday in Newcastle, or indeed the wider electorate.
So should we then be surprised that having upset all the left liberals over tuition fees, in turn a result of not preparing the party for change, he has now had a crack at upsetting all the market liberals over the NHS, for exactly the same reason?
Does it matter?
In the short-term, not a great deal, the Heath and Social Care Bill was already a fairly weak reform programme, entirely mishandled by Lansley and Cameron, and there is no guarantee Clegg’s “tantrum” or Williams amendments will change much. Much of this row is about perception and positioning.
In the long-run, Clegg has two problems. First he has allowed his name to be a attached to a string of quotes the left can beat him and allies with until the end of his career. A selection and the issue:
“people not profits”
- an empty slogan, usually to be found on protest marches organised by the hard-left. It broadly means all private enterprise is evil. Try reforming anything now, banks, employment law, tax… “people not profits” will come the cry.
“competition only on quality not price”
- another empty slogan that if it did mean anything would surely be applicable outside health. Does Clegg now wish to ban price competition in all markets?
“no government will be able to once again favour the private sector”
- even if the public sector is rubbish. Is that the Tube drivers threatening strike action unless bribed to do their well paid unskilled jobs during the Olympics… thank goodness we don’t favour the private sector.
“private providers can only offer their services where patients say they want them”
- which is a curious double standard for those of us who are forced to use the public sector whether we want it or not due to the absence of competition.
“the NHS is never treated like a private industry.”
- other than in respect of employment law, tax law, health and safety, the supplies and services they buy on the open market, the agency staff that work there, the work they outsource and so on. This is both pandering to the complete fiction that the NHS is an entirely public sector operation, and opening all the parts that are not to attack. Thanks Nick!
“(no) threat of takeover from US -style healthcare providers”
- boo US health… boo… what about all those nice EU healthcare providers who produce good outcomes in more mixed systems than the UK? Again pandering to a destructive myth.
“insulating the NHS from the full force of competition law.”
- because as liberals we believe protectionism, mercantilism, and monopoly is a superior way of delivering services than for example allowing innovation or choice… you what?
“Foundation Trusts cannot focus on private profits before patients.”
- killing and maiming people is not profitable. Making them better faster in comfort on the other hand tends to attract other customers and repeat business, but horror oh horror that’s both the profit motive and desire to do good all mixed up… can you imagine trying to explain that on a focus leaflet?… well can you?… will no one think of the children who devise our campaigns?…
Second, no one, from Baroness Williams, to the Miliband Tendency in the Liberal Left, to his coalition partners thinks Clegg actually believes any of this crap. Rather than looking like a magisterial negotiator shrewdly steering the path of the possible through his allies and foes, he just looks weak and vacillating. Clegg’s image problem has never been proximity to David Cameron’s world-view, it’s his utter inconsistency. Once again he has flipped his floppy quiff rather than follow his instincts.
For the left, they now know the Orange roadblock in the Leadership can be rammed out of the way with placards. Screaming and shrieking nonsense works. Today people not profits, tomorrow the US government caused 9-11 and covered it up. This is unlikely to enhance party unity, only leave Clegg’s allies dejected and his foes hungry for more. Starting no doubt with a wrecking motion at conference. So what was the point.
When is Nick Clegg going to grow up, decide what he wants to be, and just lead?