The NHS reforms ought to suit the Liberal Democrats just fine. After all, a key part of being a Liberal is belief in the market; and these reforms are trying to get an internal market to replace a state monopoly. And in the Orange Book, written by people like David Laws and Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Chris Huhne, in 2004, an insurance-based NHS was proposed.
Then in last year’s election sentences like this appeared in their manifesto:
“Putting front line staff in charge of their ward or unit budget, and allowing staff to establish employee trusts giving them real involvement and say over how their service is run.”
“Giving local health boards the freedom to commission services for local people from a range of different types of provider.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Nick Clegg signed the White Paper, which was read and approved by Danny Alexander months later. Then it was voted for at first and second reading. But now Nick Clegg is going back on his promise. However, no one is going out to protest. No one is rioting in the streets. The unions are not up in arms. Why?
All parties have their split: Tories on Europe, Labour on AV. The Liberal Democrats are an odd amalgam of liberals and social democrats. And the people vocally opposing the bill are Shirley Williams and Norman Lamb (not exactly the loyal retainer): both are on the left wing of the party. And that is where the vote lies. They increased the number of seats they hold steadily under Ashdown and Kennedy – both social democrats. And Kennedy abstained on the vote in the commons.
One can’t help feeling cynical about why all those protestors aren’t up in arms about this like they were with tuition fees. Then they thought Clegg was making them pay for something they didn’t want to pay for; now they think that he is trying to prevent Lansley making them pay for something they don’t want to pay for. Last time they were outraged at the betrayal, “A pestilence on him for a mad rogue!” This time they are placated by a betrayal.
Of course, there is a less cynical answer to this. There are no protestors about this broken promise because there are no Lib Dem voters left to protest. Nick Clegg has looked his voters in the eye and told them he’s going to break a promise (expecting, presumably, some moral grandstanding and flaming police vans in Whitehall) and all he sees is a skull to mock his own grinning.
Either way if Nick Clegg is serious when he says his party needs to learn lessons from last week's election, then he could start by keeping a promise that has passed through a book, manifesto, white paper, and commons vote. Last time he abandoned his voters; now he appeals to them, abandoning his colleagues. He needs to pick one and stick to it. Otherwise he might find that his political collapse will bear less resemblance to Hamlet’s indecisiveness, than to Yorick’s brief cameo; less the noble Dane than the fellow of infinite jest quite chap-fall'n.
All political lives end in failure. Clegg needs to realise, more and more as time passes, that past is prologue, and in the future he’ll need some allies.