Liberal Democrats refused to fully endorse controversial reforms of the health service today in a blow to party leader Nick Clegg.
Critics of the NHS overhaul hijacked a pro-change motion at the party's spring conference. Activists voted 314 to 270 to remove a crucial line calling for peers to back the final stages of the Health and Social Care Bill.
The move demonstrates the continuing strength of opposition within party ranks to the controversial health service.
But the result does not oblige the Lib Dems to “kill the Bill” as opponents had pushed for yesterday.
The Deputy Prime Minister escaped the potential embarrassment of an outright bid to enshrine withdrawal of the Bill in party policy after members rejected a rebel motion yesterday.
But he watched on in the conference hall this morning as Lib Dem activists lined up to criticise the NHS shake-up and eventually reject the call in the “Shirley Williams motion” for peers to support the legislation in its final stages.
Baroness Williams, an early critic who later gave the Bill her backing after securing a raft of changes, has been seen as vital in helping to reach out to disgruntled party members.
She told conference she believed the Bill represented the “greatest step forward” in saving the NHS.
“We have stopped the process of privatisation.
“I wouldn't be standing here if I believed for one moment it undermined the NHS.”
Rachel Coleman Finch, a party member from Cambridge, told conference the politics of the bill were "poisonous".
"We are screwed if we pass it and we are screwed if we don't," she said.
"We need to get away from a macho fear of u-turns."
Dr Ann Morrison, from Birmingham, argued if the party had stuck to the Coalition agreement "it would not be in this position now".
She added: "You should never turn supporting a bad Bill into a political testosterone and virility test."
Supporters of the motion urged activists not to "tie our hands" in the final stages of the Bill in the next two weeks.
Julian Tisi, from Windsor, insisted the Bill was a demonstration of "Coalition Government at its best" because the current Bill was a "completely different beast" from the original set of proposals as a result of the work of Lib Dems.
"To vote it down now would be petulant," he added.
But St Ives MP Andrew George insisted the party could not go on "deluding" itself.
"Substantial opposition has still been mounting in spite of these changes.
"We cannot claim the Bill has been hugely changed.
"I don't want to be apologising in years to come," he added.
Former MP Evan Harris, who was behind the successful bid to amend the motion, told conference that despite the "sincere efforts" made in the House of Lords to reform the Bill it still did not contain a block on the wholesale outsourcing of commissioning work.
"It is still nowhere near the coalition agreement," he added.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes suggested that the NHS reforms had not reached their "final shape".
He told Sky News' Murnaghan programme: "I think the conference reflected the mood of the party and the country to be honest.
"The NHS Bill is a controversial Bill. It is not the Bill we would have produced if we had been in government on our own. It is a Bill where the conference made clear it wants other changes.
"And the conference and the party is saying: we are reserving our judgment on the Bill as a whole until we see the final shape of it.
"We want to be reassured. We want to see the final product before we agree to it."
Mr Hughes denied that the text of the Bill was now settled.
"It is in the report stage in the Lords; there are further amendments to be debated this week.
"There are amendments that the party and people like Baroness Shurley Williams want to be carried.
"In the Lords, unusually, there is the chance for amendments on the third reading as well."