Nick Clegg faces stormy conference as activists vent fury at NHS reform


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Nick Clegg faces a challenge to his authority at the Liberal Democrats' annual conference as party activists plan to rebel over four of the Coalition Government's policies.

When the Birmingham meeting opens tomorrow, grassroots members will challenge a ruling by conference managers to deny delegates a vote on the Government's controversial NHS reforms. Although Mr Clegg extracted concessions from David Cameron, some Lib Dems believe they did not go far enough.

A conference vote in favour of further amendments to the NHS and Social Care Bill could undermine Mr Clegg's attempt to convince the public that the Lib Dems are punching above their weight inside the Coalition.

The party is more democratic than the Conservatives or Labour and their conference decides party policy. Some activists fear that the current plan to stage a health debate without a formal vote would mark the first step towards the event becoming a "Conservative-style rally."

Evan Harris, vice chairman of the party's federal policy committee, said yesterday: "There is a lot of anxiety among party activists that the conference is being turned into an event where votes are avoided. That's not our style." Grassroots revolts are also in prospect over the Government's plans to cut £350m from the legal aid budget and reduce state benefits for cancer patients and over its response to last month's riots.

Lawyers plan to confront Mr Clegg over the withdrawal of legal aid from most cases of family breakdown, medical negligence, immigration, debt and welfare benefit, and to make claimants to pay legal fees out of compensation payments. The moves were rejected in a vote at the party's spring conference.

Alistair Webster, chairman of the Liberal Democrat Lawyers' Association, said: "I don't think that, either inside the Government or in the parliamentary party, people have done anything like enough to push the [party's] agenda. I'm more than disappointed – I'm appalled."

An emergency motion criticises politicians who have called for tougher punishments for the rioters, saying: "Sentencing is a matter for the courts." It attacks suggestions that benefits should be removed from rioters and their families, warning the move would "simply create more deprivation and encourage more criminality", and cuts to funding for youth services.

Another resolution criticises the Welfare Reform Bill, which could deprive an estimated 7,000 cancer patients up to £94 a week because their employment and support allow- ance (ESA) could be removed after a year. A YouGov survey for Macmillan Cancer Support published today shows that 66 per cent of Lib Dem supporters believe cancer sufferers should continue to receive the full ESA for as long as they are unable to work.

* Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, said Mr Clegg would make a "tremendous" EU Commissioner, fuelling speculation he might succeed Baroness (Cathy) Ashton in 2014. But Mr Huhne told Prospect magazine Mr Clegg is "not someone who's likely to quit halfway through the game" and believed he would "see out my time in politics" as Lib Dem leader.