Who do you trust more on health policy: Shirley Williams or 10 Downing Street?

That looks like the choice facing Liberal Democrat party members following today’s moves on the NHS Bill.

On the one hand, there is Shirley Williams putting her name alongside that of Nick Clegg in a letter to Liberal Democrat peers, calling on them to back the amendments being moved by Tim Clement-Jones this week. The implicit message of this is that Shirley Williams no longer thinks dropping Part 3 of the bill in its entirety is the best route to pursue. Instead, she is backing the push to amend Part 3 further.

The simple top-line explanation is that Labour left lots of loopholes and messes over the involvement of the private sector in the NHS. Dropping Part 3 in its entirety would mean losing the proposals that cut back and control the privatisation let in by Labour.

Both the substance of that and the popularity of the messenger – Shirley Williams – could carry significant weight with Liberal Democrat grassroots, especially when it comes to the likely health debate at the Liberal Democrat spring conference.

However… critics are bound to quote 10 Downing Street’s reaction today, which has been to downplay the significance of the amendments.

Hence the choice for many Liberal Democrats will be, who do you trust more on this: is Shirley Williams right in saying that the changes are significant or is 10 Downing Street right in saying they are not?

UPDATE: Two further twists to the story –

(a) 10 Downing Street is now backing away from its initial dissing of the importance of the TCJ amendments. (Possibly the penny has dropped that doing so upped the odds of Liberal Democrat conference voting for a more drastic change of course on the NHS Bill);

(b) the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is due to hold an EGM on the Health Bill on the day before Liberal Democrat conference. Given the powerful influence of health bodies on the public perception of the Health Bill, the outcome of that meeting could have a significant influence on how Liberal Democrat members vote at the conference.

See also the email from Nick Clegg and Shirley Williams to Liberal Democrat members here.

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