Tory-Lib Dem tension boils over as rows threaten split in coalition
Simmering tensions within the coalition boiled over as senior Conservative and Liberal Democrat figures were involved in a series of highly public clashes.
David Cameron faced calls to stamp his authority on his junior coalition partners as divisions over reforms of the NHS, employment and House of Lords reform erupted into the open.
Former defence secretary Liam Fox put himself at the head of Tory MPs demanding a greater say over government policy, reminding the Prime Minister that they accounted for “five sixths of the coalition, not half”.
Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes responded with a warning that the party’s peers would seek to rewrite key elements of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms when the Health and Social Care Bill returns to the Lords this week, reforms which do not apply in Scotland.
Meanwhile, senior Lib Dem Lord Oakeshott warned that the party would wreck Conservative plans to redraw the parliamentary boundaries if Tories blocked Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s proposals for an elected House of Lords.
In an angry on-air spat with a Conservative backbencher, the peer denounced Tory MPs as “headbangers” and accused them of adopting “wrecking tactics”.
The public display of feuding will fuel speculation over whether the coalition can survive to May 2015, as Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg had originally agreed.
On a fractious day, the initial shots were fired by Dr Fox, who used his first major television interview since his resignation last year to challenge Mr Cameron to overrule the Lib Dems and push through changes to the labour laws making it easier for employers to hire and fire staff.
“The objections inside government and outside government – but, yes, including some of the arguments put forward by our coalition partners – they need to be taken on and overridden, otherwise we become about managed decline for Britain,” he said.
He said the Lib Dems had been “quite vocal in saying what they want” in government, adding: “I don’t think it is necessarily the best way to be running a coalition.
“The Conservatives, who make up five-sixths of the coalition – not half the coalition – need to be also reassured that the Conservative agenda is being fully implemented,” he said.
In the same studio, Lord Oakeshott then became involved in a furious row with Tory right-winger Philip Davies over Lords reform, warning him that the Conservatives would be fighting the next general election on the old parliamentary boundaries if the changes to the upper chamber did not go through.
“I think we will not be wanting to put that through if they welch on the other half of the deal. No, a deal’s a deal,” he said.
Lord Oakeshott, seen as a close ally of Business Secretary Vince Cable, then branded the Tories “headbangers” who could “never get away from Europe”.
Mr Davies responded by accusing the peer of making “petulant” threats, and challenging the Lib Dems “to run away from the coalition” and fight an election.
Meanwhile, Mr Hughes confirmed the Lib Dems were tabling a series of major amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill in the Lords, despite a warning by Mr Cameron of “chaos” in the NHS if the reforms do not go through.
“Watch this space. You will see a Bill that will protect and defend the NHS which was a Liberal idea in the first place,” Mr Hughes said.
Chancellor George Osborne said it was essential the reforms went through if the NHS was to remain affordable into the future. “I absolutely believe we need to see the NHS Bill through,” he said. “As the society ages, as we live longer, we have got to have an NHS that can afford new treatments.”
But with Lib Dem activists threatening a revolt at the party’s spring conference next month, Labour leader Ed Miliband sought to exploit the divisions within the coalition, urging Lib Dem peers to vote with Labour to bring down the legislation.
“If they do not, the betrayal by the Lib Dems in allowing this Bill through will be bigger than the row over tuition fees.”
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Friday 24 May 2013
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