Andrew Lansley's career prospects were boosted yesterday — when Simon Hughes said that he should ‘move on’ after the NHS reforms have been implemented. Since then, Downing Street has redoubled its defence of the Health Secretary; with a spokesman explaining tersely this morning that, ‘Simon Hughes speaks for himself ’. And Nick Clegg himself has added that, ‘Andrew Lansley is the architect of the NHS bill. He cares passionately about the NHS. He's the right man for the job and he must see it through.’
Clegg's general support for the Bill — and Danny Alexander's — is worth noting because it's one of the factors helping David Cameron hang on to both it and his Health Secretary. And I doubt the Deputy Prime Minister will be eager to withdraw it any time soon. After having the Bill paused and tweaked more to their liking last year, the Lib Dem leadership have been bound more tightly into the process now. Any repeat wavering on their part could be painted as more unreasonable.
But there are still pressures pushing Clegg the other way — foremost among them his own party. Lib Dem MPs have already used PMQs to ask for the Bill to be dropped, and their opposition is only likely to increase as the party's spring conference approaches. The same event last year was when Lib Dem members passed a motion attacking Lansley's Bill, which in turn pushed the government towards that period of pausing and listening and engaging, etc. There's a good chance that the NHS will feature heavily this time around, too.
Which leaves Clegg in a peculiar position: the poacher who did much to hinder the Bill last year is now a gamekeeper who may be damaged by its continued progress.