DAVID Cameron’s efforts to unite the coalition and close down speculation over the future of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley have suffered a setback after a senior Liberal Democrat urged his removal.
The Prime Minister used a newspaper article yesterday to insist he was “at one” with Mr Lansley and backed the controversial reforms to the National Health Service, south of the Border, going through parliament.
Senior Tories were also deployed to television studios yesterday in a bid to support the Cabinet minister’s position.
However, Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes broke ranks to say Mr Lansley should be shifted from his post.
“My political judgment is that in the second half of the parliament it would be better to move on,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.
A source close to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg stressed that Mr Hughes was expressing a personal opinion.
Several Conservative Cabinet ministers are said to have privately criticised Mr Lansley’s handling of the Health and Social Care Bill, with one suggesting the government’s problems were now on the scale of the Poll Tax in the 1980s.
A Downing Street source was also quoted last week saying that the health secretary should be “taken out and shot”.
However, writing in a Sunday newspaper, Mr Cameron stressed that there was no alternative to NHS reform.
“It needs to change – and that is why I am at one with Andrew Lansley, the reform programme and the legislation going through parliament.”
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt dismissed the prospect of Mr Lansley being axed.
“Andrew Lansley is absolutely the right person for this job,” he said. [He] is a decent man, passionate about the NHS and he knows what he is doing.”
Ms Hunt added: “It is completely wrong to make a judgment about someone when they are in the middle of the storm.”
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles was asked if he was one of the Cabinet ministers who criticised the NHS shake-up.
“I would like to know who is even vaguely suggesting that,” he replied. I have been very supportive of these measures, particularly as it enhances the role of local government.”
Challenged to condemn ministers who had briefed against Mr Lansley, Mr Pickles said: “I sit in a Cabinet united in wanting to see these reforms through.”
He insisted Mr Lansley should “absolutely” stay as Health Secretary. “I am sorry that is Simon’s [Hughes] view, but Andrew has taken this bill through.”
However, ex-Tory minister David Mellor said Mr Lansley’s stewardship of the NHS reforms represented a “failed attempt to prove you can take personality out of politics”.
He questioned why the health secretary had not been deployed to television studios himself.
Asked whether Mr Lansley should be moved from his job, Mr Hughes responded: “Yes.”
Mr Lansley has brushed off suggestions he should resign to salvage the reforms.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: “The Tory-led government seems to be in meltdown over the Health Bill.
“Not only do we have senior Tory Cabinet ministers calling for it be dropped, we also have senior Liberal Democrats calling for the removal of the Health Secretary on national television.
“The Prime Minister is putting his political pride before the best interests of the health service.”