Next weekend those cocky members of the Coalition, the Lib Dems, are likely to try and crash the Health Bill into the buffers.
They nearly derailed it last year. Their Spring Conference forced the government to “pause” consideration of the legislation. The next few days will see a tussle between activists and Lib Dem party managers trying to keep the issue off the agenda at their Gateshead conference.
It is all too much for some Conservatives who are fed up to the back teeth with their Coalition partners. The Lib Dems have already begun their approach to the 2015 General Election, trying to remain in the Coalition but distancing themselves from unpopular measures. But the more they attempt to curry favour with their grassroots, the more they infuriate those Tories who have little time for this forced marriage with the Lib Dems.
This week I was at a meeting with a Tory councillor present. She was criticising government policy. When I pointed out that it was her government, the forces of hell descended on me. She glared at me and declared “It is not MY government.”
Whether the Health Bill is debated at Gateshead or not, the legislation is already causing casualties in Lib Dem ranks in the North West.
Paul Clein was a leading member of the Lib Dem administration that governed Liverpool for over a decade and a plausible candidate for leader of his group in the city. He has now resigned from the party that he has been a member of all his life.
He believes that although Shirley Williams has wrung some concessions from ministers on the health bill, the legislation should have been opposed by the party from the start because it was not in the Coalition agreement.
But Clein is not rushing off to join the Labour Party. In his resignation message, he says they “nauseate” him for “acting holier than thou”, pointing out how much private provision they introduced into the health service.
This criticism is unlikely to worry Andy Burnham. The Leigh MP is having “a good war” as Shadow Secretary of State for Health. When he stood for the Labour leadership 2 years ago, he was little known outside the North West. Now the fresh faced Everton supporter is growing in stature within the party and I wouldn’t rule out him becoming leader one day.
But let’s get back to the Lib Dems. Party President Tim Farron is set for a very difficult time in Gateshead. Having let slip on Granada’s Party People programme that the legislation should be dropped, the role of the Westmorland MP will be pivotal next weekend.
As will Shirley Williams, who is remembered in these parts for her brief period as MP for Crosby. Having achieved some concessions she might prove a problem for Lib Dem rebels trying to stop the bill. Altogether she has had a long career in British politics, and although she has never held the highest ministerial offices, Williams is widely respected.
The Conservatives remain convinced that the NHS is in need of reform and they are probably right, but not by this complex bill. Vested interests, including some doctors, have always opposed reform. That was true in 1948 when Labour’s Nye Bevan had to “stuff their mouths with gold” to found the NHS in the first place.
It is a right old mess. Following an unwelcome modern trend, there has been a presumption that the bill would become law. Many of the Primary Care Trusts have already wound up. So going back would be very difficult.
Like that other tortured soul, Macbeth, the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is probably concluding “returning would be as tedious as go o’er”.
Bring on the witches!