The increasing divide between the Lib Dem grassroots and their MPs

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 16 March 2011 in Diary
NHS reform is the latest issue to demonstrate the distance between what Lib Dem party members want and what their MPs deliver in the Commons

Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms have become the latest battleground between the Lib Dem grassroots and their front bench representatives. This is symptomatic of an increasing sense among Lib Dem supporters that their MPs are not translating their intentions into votes.

Today, Labour will try and exploit this with an opposition day debate on health, the motion of which is very closely modelled on the 'rebel' amendments passed by the Lib Dem spring conference over the weekend.

These amendments commit the party to seeking an extensive reworking of Lansley's health and social care bill. In particular, they aim to limit the involvement of the private sector in the NHS.

However, as The Guardian reports, the Lib Dems are not expected to break rank with their Conservative colleagues and vote with Labour's motion. Dr Evan Harris, former Lib Dem MP in Oxford, said over the weekend he expected Lib Dem MPs to feel 'bound' by the conference motion. It would seem that they don't share his view.

While this afternoon's debate may not deliver the headline-grabbing rebellion that Labour will be hoping for, it is significant in three other ways.

Firstly, this is the first time that the Lib Dems have put on record their dissent from a coalition policy. It forces Lib Dem MPs to make a choice: represent the views of their conference delegates or support the government.

Secondly, this is a very strategic move by Labour to discredit the Lib Dems further in the run up to the local elections. Health is a very emotive issue on the doorstep and being able to add another 'Lib Dem betrayal' to their list will give a welcome boost to Labour candidates everywhere.

Thirdly, it will be fascinating to see how Nick Clegg copes with this. As party leader his members will be expecting him to lobby on their behalf to change the legislation. But as Lansley's cabinet colleague he will be reluctant to expend political capital like this. It's been said many times that a large part of the coalition's stability hangs on the personal rapport between David Cameron and Nick Clegg. This will be a test of how he is regarded by the other Tories he works with.

My feeling is that Clegg won't want to rock the boat. Labour will be voting alone this afternoon. His own position isn't secure enough for that. Which begs the question - how are the Lib Dem grassroots going to punish Clegg and his MPs for defying their orders?

Tags: Andrew Lansley, David Cameron, Evan Harris, Nick Clegg

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