The Liberal Democrats yesterday broke their self-imposed silence on the latest problems facing the Government's health reforms, with the party's deputy leader suggesting that Andrew Lansley should be moved from his job as Health Secretary.
On a day that David Cameron attempted to quash speculation over Mr Lansley's political future with a supportive newspaper article, Simon Hughes broke rank to call for him to "move on" before the next election.
His intervention came as senior Conservatives were deployed in television interviews to shore up Mr Lansley's position. Several Tory Cabinet ministers 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.
But writing in the Sunday Times, Mr Cameron stressed that there was no alternative to reform. "I've known what it is to have the NHS by your side," he said. "But while the values are right, the system isn't. It needs to change – and that is why I am at one with Andrew Lansley, the reform programme and the legislation going through Parliament."
The message was backed by the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who dismissed the prospect of Mr Lansley being axed, insisting he would be seen as the "architect of the modern NHS". The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, added: "I sit in a Cabinet that is united in wanting to see these reforms through."
But Mr Hughes said the Government needed to move on from the NHS Bill controversy with a new Health Secretary: "I'm clear we need to move on from this Bill... My political judgement is that in the second half of Parliament it would be better to move on." Pressed on whether he thought Andrew Lansley should be replaced, Mr Hughes agreed that he should.
The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, will come under intense pressure from Lib Dem activists if the Health Bill has not been passed when the party holds its spring conference. Party sources said that while they have been mainly successful at containing opposition to the Bill among their own supporters, this was being tested by anonymous briefings on the Tory side.
"The Health Bill has been catastrophically managed by Andrew Lansley but it's far harder to hold our line when you have Tory cabinet ministers briefing against their own Cabinet minister," they said. Privately, Mr Cameron is deeply frustrated by the divisions within his party over the reforms. At a recent meeting at No 10, he is said to have thumped a desk, saying: "We've not shed blood on these proposals not to go through with them."