The Health and Social Care Bill: what next for the Liberal Democrats?

The plan for the party’s autumn conference was straight-forward: talk up the party’s achievements in getting the Health and Social Care Bill changed, have a question & answer session to let people discuss but not disrupt the revised legislation and move on to talk about other issues.

That plan has been under assault, however, from health rebels within the Liberal Democrats who do not believe the changes have gone far enough.  Spear-headed by Shirley Williams and Evan Harris they have been pressing for further changes, with a debate at conference being the method to deliver them.

The initial attempt at getting a health motion on the agenda was rebuffed by the party’s Federal Conference Committee (FCC), given the presence of the Q&A session on the agenda anyway. So now Harris and co are both pressing ahead with an appeal against the decision, threatening to try to overturn the decision with a vote on the FCC’s report at conference and also putting in an emergency motion on the topic. Emergency motions then get put in a ballot where conference representatives vote to pick which one(s) to debate.

Readers whose eyes are glazing over at the triple procedural assault risk missing the bigger picture – these sorts of procedural details are the ways in which major government policy gets shaped in the world of a coalition government involving a party which still has meaningful internal democracy for its policy processes. And the details don’t stop there…

The most likely outcome at this stage looks to be the emergency motion route. It lets the FCC stick to its agenda guns, it avoids a vote on overturning its decision (a risky proposition for the health rebels to push as that would require a two-thirds majority and could cause significantly practical organisational problems) and it puts the onus back on the rebels to win the emergency motions ballot to get the motion debated. It also allows opponents of the rebels to quietly amass votes for other motions in the ballot (such as on the London riots), which could make for some interesting voting patterns…

But the downside? If the health motion won through on the emergency motions ballot, it would get debated on the Wednesday of party conference – just before Nick Clegg’s keynote speech and to a roomful of journalists desperately looking for something interesting to say about a party leader’s conference speech.

I’m not half looking forward to conference.

UPDATE: Ah, there was another procedural option I didn’t mention and lo… that is the one that has been picked by the party’s senior figures: there will be one of the topical discussions without a vote on health. That then gives a solid defence against letting either the original motion or the emergency motion on to the agenda – all while avoiding a potentially confrontational vote.

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