The Government's controversial health reforms suffered another setback yesterday when the president of the Liberal Democrats said his party should have killed them off last year.
Tim Farron, the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, said the Health and Social Care Bill should have been "dropped" or "massively changed" at an earlier stage. "Lots of us are guilty for allowing it to get as far as it has done now. Basically this should have been dealt with far earlier in the cycle," he told Granada TV.
As the Liberal Democrats wavered, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, denied that he opposed the reforms but confirmed that he would address a rally against plans to cut children's and maternity services in his North Yorkshire constituency of Richmond.
Labour accused Mr Hague of double standards over his constituency rally, saying he was backing plans for the NHS to save £20bn by 2015 and the Coalition's reforms while opposing cuts locally. Its attack will heighten fears among some Tories that the shake-up will be blamed for cuts at local level even if they would have happened anyway.
Mr Farron's comments will infuriate Tory ministers since they will be seen as giving the go-ahead to Liberal Democrat peers to rebel against the Bill, which continues its passage through the Lords next week. Senior Tories are accusing Nick Clegg of reneging on a promise to David Cameron almost two weeks ago that he would not undermine the shake-up. But Liberal Democrat peers, led by Baroness Williams, have tabled new amendments to restrict competition, in order to allay fears that the changes could lead to the backdoor privatisation of the NHS.
A source close to Mr Hague, right, said his speech at the rally in May would have nothing to do with reforms. The protest is over plans to switch the maternity and paediatric units at Friarage Hospital in Northallerton to James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough. "He supports government policy," the source said. "He thinks these are bad proposals, as do most people in Richmondshire."
Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, received strong backing from Tory MPs at their annual "bonding session" yesterday after Mr Cameron urged them to rally behind the reforms. A document handed to Tory MPs admitted: "We need to continue to explain our reforms, ensure the Bill is passed and demonstrated how these reforms are working on the ground.
"We will never privatise the NHS ... We believe in the NHS and its core principles – of treatment free at the point of use, funded from general taxation, and based on need and not ability to pay."
Changing their tune: The Nimby ministers
"Improved rail connectivity is a vital component for delivering a successful Welsh economy".
Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan, 11 September 2011
"This will leave a deep scar on the stunning and fragile countryside."
Cheryl Gillan in November 2011
"Above and beyond everything, that structural deficit has to be gripped."
Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone, April 2011
"A cut in the number of police on the beat is worrying."
Lynne Featherstone, October 2011
"Healthcare reform is vital to deliver continued improvements."
Home Office Minister James Brokenshire, 12 May 2011
"I'm proud to be campaigning to have services returned to Queen Mary's Hospital"
James Brokenshire, December 2011