No 'easy passage' for health reforms in the Lords
Two things were made very clear from the NHS 'report back session' that has just taken place in the main hall at Lib Dem conference. Firstly, Liberal Democrat members are more in love with Shirley Williams than ever - her very appearance prompted the biggest round of applause I've heard so far. Secondly, it was obvious that Shirley Williams is very angry about the NHS reforms, and will be doing her very best to force concessions out of the coalition once the bill reaches the Lords in a few weeks.
Williams is anxious to change two aspects of what she termed a "very obscure, very complicated" piece of legislation. She wants to remove the so-called 'autonomy clause', under which the health secretary won't be able to exert authority over Monitor or the commissioning boards, and also see the secretary of state maintain direct and accountable responsibility for delivering a comprehensive health service for the UK.
As I reported last week, the delegates weren't given the opportunity to vote on a health motion - a decision that was challenged again, unsuccessfully, by Evan Harris on Saturday. From the way questions were asked and the attitude of the other panellists, it seems that the party has pinned its hopes of achieving further changes to the Bill on Williams and her colleagues in the Lords.
And they won't disappoint, Williams insisted. She described how angry she was that the Commons only had three days to debate the Bill, and promised that the "relatively easy passage" won't be repeated in the upper house. She even issued what could be considered a direct challenge to the government and the party leadership, saying: "the Whips are much less powerrful in the Lords". She went on to state that there would have to be "major concessions" before the Lords would be prepared to pass the legislation.
A busy autumn for peers, then, and yet another challenge for Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem leadership to continue to convince that they are responsible for the changes to the Bill. Watching the 80-year-old Shirley Williams up on the stage delivering her promise to change the Bill for the better, it's hard to imagine anyone standing in her way as she amends the legislation in the direction party members want, whether they're deputy prime minister or not.