Norman Lamb’s announcement today that the government will re-write regulations on competition in the NHS seals up one source of grief for the Lib Dems ahead of their spring conference this weekend. Activists had been threatening an awkward showdown with the leadership on the section 75 regulations, and instead ministers (its notable that Lib Dem Lamb was sent out to bat for the government today rather than a Conservative) can go to their party and argue that they are keeping check on the Conservatives when it comes to the NHS.
But this has a flipside, which is that the row over secret courts will gain more momentum now activists’ minds are focused. Two emergency motions on the subject have been submitted to the conference committee, so there is little likelihood of the leadership being able to keep this off the conference floor. If it did, arguing that conference already expressed a view in the autumn, the fury from activists would be quite something to behold. Those Lib Dem MPs who voted against the government last night might feel a little more relaxed than their colleagues.
But the problem Nick Clegg – who will again almost certainly be grilled on it in his Q&A session on the Saturday afternoon – has is that he needs to convince his activists that he did everything he could to secure the changes already in the legislation. Sources close to him have already told Coffee House that they did the best they could with the political capital they had, but Clegg will want to avoid suggesting to his party members that he is powerless in the Coalition, particularly on an issue that the grassroots feel so strongly about.
Of course, Labour is arguing that it was the threat of a ‘fatal motion’ on the regulations, which would have forced the Lib Dems into a vote against the government, that led to the U-turn.