The turmoil over David Cameron's NHS shake-up intensified yesterday as three Tory Cabinet ministers privately denounced the plans and the Liberal Democrats warned they could withdraw their support for the reforms.
The fresh convulsions were prompted by a demand by the Tory grassroots website ConservativeHome for the Health and Social Care Bill to be scrapped.
It quoted the anonymous Cabinet ministers as calling for the Bill to be abandoned and for Andrew Lansley to be replaced as Health Secretary, with a third minister comparing the proposed NHS overhaul to the poll tax.
The mutiny, reflecting Tory fears that the plans could fatally damage the party's electoral appeal, forced Downing Street and Mr Lansley to insist they were determined to drive the Bill into law.
A Government source said last night: "Nobody has come to the Prime Minister about this. Cabinet ministers support policy or they would not be in the Cabinet."
Conservative MPs have protested in private meetings with ministers that the reforms are too complicated and have been poorly communicated by the Health Secretary.
An unnamed Downing Street source was reported this week as saying Mr Lansley should be "taken out and shot" for mishandling the policy.
The Health Secretary brushed off calls for his resignation yesterday, adding: "It is because the NHS matters so much, because we believe in the values of the NHS, we have to be prepared to reform."
A source close to him said: "The idea the Government would drop this flagship reform is ludicrous."
However, it emerged last night that Nick Clegg could reconsider his support if Tory critics continued to attack the measure.
One senior Lib Dem source said: "We have shown an incredible amount of discipline on this Bill. It is now time for the Conservatives to do the same. If some of their people keep attacking it, it is going to be difficult for us to keep our party in the right place."
The Lib Dem leadership will oppose calls by some members for another vote on the Bill at the party's spring conference in Gateshead next month. But the party's federal conference committee may decide to allow an emergency motion on the issue if controversy is still raging on the eve of the gathering.
A highly critical motion on the original plans at last year's spring conference strengthened Mr Clegg's hand in his negotiations with the Tories on amending the Bill.
The measure will come under fresh attack next week in the House of Lords, with the Government steeling itself for a series of defeats.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, took the unusual step last night of writing to all peers to urge them to scupper the Bill. He said the shake-up would "undermine the quality and ethos of our NHS", create a fragmented service and cost a vast sum.
Cabinet Dissent: Who is doing the briefing?
As all Cabinet ministers denied being secret critics of the Bill, suspicion fell on Iain Duncan Smith. As a right-wing reformer, the Work and Pensions Secretary might not seem the likeliest suspect to be a rebel.
However, he has strong personal links with Tim Montgomerie, the editor of Conservative Home, hiring him briefly as his chief of staff during his unhappy spell as Tory leader.
Mr Montgomerie quotes one of the rebels as likening the proposed reforms to the poll tax – a comparison that could suggest a minister with a long memory.
That could implicate Sir George Young, the Leader of the Commons, or Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary and a former Health Secretary. As an early Tory moderniser, Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, would have a keen sense of the damage the subject of health can do to the Conservative brand.
Last night the anonymous trio was being compared to the three unnamed "bastards" that Sir John Major – unaware a camera was recording him – complained were plotting against his leadership in 1993.
It was quickly assumed he meant Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo and John Redwood. Sir John later denied they were his "bastards".Reuse content