Lib Dem conference: Team Clegg averts disaster (just)

The Deputy Prime Minister narrowly avoids a bitter public row over the Health and Social Care Bill

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One of Nick Clegg's big fears is that, come the next election, he will be best remembered for being obsessed with yawn-inducing constitutional tinkering by trying to overhaul the House of Lords and changing how we vote.

But, in an irony that will not be lost on the Liberal Democrat leader, he scored a rare victory yesterday, with the help of the voting system which was last year rejected in the referendum on his party's long-held dream of electoral reform.

Team Clegg saw off a challenge from the grassroots to ditch the hated Health and Social Care Bill, but only thanks to the arcane intricacies of the alternative vote system, which was used to decide which emergency motion would be debated at the spring conference in Gateshead today.

For the past year, activists led by Charles West, an NHS doctor, and the former MP Evan Harris have railed against the NHS reforms. Today was going to be their big moment, when the Lib Dems would rise up as one and demand the Government "Kill the Bill". But democracy, of sorts, got in the way.

Baroness Williams, doyenne of the Lib Dems in the Lords, had spent months securing amendments to the Bill, seeking to rein in the Tory enthusiasm for competition in the health service. She was not about to see her hard work jettisoned. So she tabled a rival motion, calling on peers to back the Bill if more amendments were secured.

An exasperated baroness told delegates the party was fighting an "uphill battle for the truth" challenging lies about the legislation on Twitter and in the media.

Two other motions were put to the vote, one on Syria and one on secret inquests. Delegates decided which motion to debate using AV, ranking them in order of preference. In the first round, the Kill the Bill motion won, with 270 votes to Lady Williams's 246. But when the other two motions were removed, and second preferences redistributed, Lady Williams came out on top, with 309 to 280.

Confused? Welcome to the world of the Lib Dems. Mr Clegg was soon out and about joking with aides about the brilliance of AV, a system he once famously described as a "miserable compromise". So as ever with these Lib Dem gatherings, disaster has been narrowly averted; the leader has come out on top. Andrew Lansley's much-amended Health and Social Care Bill can limp on to the statute book, and coalition ministers will hope never to mention it again. Mr Clegg has privately told MPs he thinks voters will have forgotten about it by the time of the local elections in May. Few believe him. Certainly the Labour Party will hammer home the idea that the Lib Dems are complicit in the privatisation of the health service, no matter what the footnotes of the legislation may say to the contrary.

Paul Burstow, the Lib Dem health minister, defended his handling of the Bill and insisted that reform was needed. "It will save lives and reduce the amount of unnecessary disability and misery."

What he may not do is save his ministerial career. Almost two years into the coalition, and somewhat belatedly, the Lib Dems are getting the hang of government. Where they dismally failed to sell the trebling of tuition fees to £9,000, they now have half a chance of convincing people they have curtailed the worst of the Tory attack on the NHS. Evan Harris said: "The party has to be more effective at sticking to the coalition agreement in the areas where there are real policy threats from the Conservatives. Health is one of those, but there will be others where allowing the Conservatives to make policy on the hoof is damaging to our professed ability to hold them in check. People don't realise the constant and often successful battles that are being fought on tax cuts for the rich that we have stopped."

Thoughts are also turning to the reshuffle. In the late-night bars of the conference hotel, ministers are ready to knife their colleagues. Along with Mr Burstow, others rumoured to be at risk from the axe are Lynne Featherstone, the Home Office minister, Andrew Stunell, the local government minister, and Lord McNally, the justice minister. Sarah Teather, the education minister who missed key votes on controversial welfare reforms, is also vulnerable. "Everything is such a drama with her," said one ministerial colleague. "We need to be much clearer in setting out why we are doing the right thing, not apologising all the time."

This has been a key message from Mr Clegg and the party's president, Tim Farron, as they prepared to rally the troops in the North-east. Voters are not impressed by hand-wringing.

While Mr Clegg and his Orange Book acolytes are often criticised for being on the right of the party, there has been a notable shift to the left in the language they have used this weekend, with aggressive attacks on the wealthy, and an insistence that the Budget in 10 days' time is still all to play for and that more taxes could be announced. Whether they are or not will be a real test of Mr Clegg's clout in Whitehall.

Persuading the public of the impact of Lib Dems in government is proving harder than they thought. A sceptical electorate will not be won over as easily as the delegates in Gateshead, whatever voting system is used.

The strange case of Vince and the leaked letter

What is going on with Vince Cable? The man described by Eric Pickles last week as a "soothsayer of some importance" is under fire for writing a letter to David Cameron and Nick Clegg criticising the Government's strategy. This letter was leaked last week, on the day that Vince was openly negotiating for a mansion tax in the Budget. So, what is he up to? Here is our version of Kremlinology, or, as we prefer, Cableology.

1. True grit

The leaked letter reminded us that Vince has a rather funny signature. But what is it supposed to mean? We know that Vince is the "grit in the oyster" of the coalition Cabinet – it needs him in there to give it credibility with the Lib Dem grassroots. Perhaps this is a doodle version of that: Vince is the dot, a mark on the otherwise smooth stroke of the curve.

2. Hats off, Vince

Vince's choice of headwear was first noticed in winter 2006, when he solemnly presented a letter, written by senior Lib Dems, to Charles Kennedy telling him his time was up. It was the Lib Dem equivalent of the hanging judge's black cap. But has it become a sign of trouble? He wore it during the fallout from the sting by The Daily Telegraph. Or maybe it's just because Vince, who is a little thin on top, has his most turbulent moments in winter.

3. It takes two to tango – but one to stop the music

Vince's real passion was the Argentine tango. He reached an "advanced level" of the Latin ballroom dance, which he once described as "quite erotic actually" – phew! But in government, when his attempts to be true to his Lib Dem roots have been tested, we don't hear much about it. As George Michael once said, guilty feet have got no rhythm.

4. That joke isn't funny any more

Like hems on a skirt, the frequency and comedic value of Vince's jokes go down during economic hard times. The man who became famous for his "From Stalin to Mr Bean" put-down of Gordon Brown hasn't been providing as many one-liners recently. Or maybe it's because, since becoming a member of the coalition, all of Vince's jokes have to go through the "Quad".

Vox pop: 'The party is healthy'

"The party is remarkably healthy. As one who takes a free-speaking approach to the coalition, I admire the way that we have stuck together. Getting into bed with your mortal enemy is never easy, but it was the only option."

Andrew George; Lib Dem MP

"My view about the coalition, which is bloody difficult, is you get in very early on legislation you don't like, which is why the pre-legislative phase is very difficult. But we know now we can change legislation out of all recognition."

Baroness Williams

"Nick says we should stop looking in the rear-view mirror. But if you don't sometimes you can head into more car crashes. The public services reform bill could get us into plenty of trouble."

John Pugh; Lib Dem MP

"Lots of great things we've put in place haven't come through yet. It is easy to think that we have done something because we have legislated. We have to make sure it works."

Jo Swinson; Lib Dem MP and aide to Nick Clegg

"It was right to be in the coalition but unlike the Tories we look like we have lost our narrative. Nick needs to focus on being Deputy PM and leave the leadership to someone else."

Lembit Opik; Former MP

"We've made the transition from the permanent powerlessness of opposition to a party that can govern. Not all of our decisions are popular, but we're motivated by the desire to make Britain more prosperous and liberal."

Jeremy Browne; Foreign Office minister