A version of the background to Conservative MPs tabling an amendment to the Queen’s Speech in which some of them may not believe and to the Government accepting this same amendment by which it is not convinced is as follows.
Earlier this week, the Daily Mail splashed on a letter from Rupert Soames, the CEO of Serco, to the Prime Minister following a meeting between them. The letter confirmed that the latter had been suggesting one thing in public (that Britain might leave the EU) while saying another in private (that business should prepare for a Remain campaign that he would support). Boris Johnson, never prone to use an understatement when an overstatement will do, described these proceedings as “the biggest stitch-up since the Bayeux tapestry”.
The revelation was obviously inconvenient to Downing Street, to put it mildly, which then, first, “threw a dead cat on the table” to distract the media and, second, threatened a leak enquiry. Michael Heseltine is the dead cat or perhaps dead lion in question – though the 83-year old former Deputy Prime Minister and leadership challenger to Margaret Thatcher is very far from a being a stiff. Boris, said Heseltine, had “crossed the bounds of domestic debate” and “people in the Party will question whether he now has the judgement [to be a future party leader]. The latter was referring to some pungent remarks made by Boris earlier that week which managed to combine the EU and Hitler in the same sentence.
The media duly hared off after the battle of the blonds, and the Serco story died a broadcast death. (One of the biggest problems the Leave campaign is having is getting a hearing on broadcast, especially on ITV: a letter it organised from 300 business leaders for Brexit gained little projection on TV). Meanwhile, Number Ten – according to this account of events – blamed Michael Gove for leaking the letter, a claim that he strongly denies. This gambit coincided with a sense among Conservative Leave campaigners that the Downing Street-orchestrated campaign is preparing to take the gloves off when biffing its opponents, not working to deny at best and actually aiding at worst hostile media inquiries about their business and private lives.
Hence Steve Baker’s article on this site yesterday morning, urging Number Ten to “stop these nasty personal attacks”, the writing of which, though undoubtedly a gain for this site, would otherwise be a bit of a mystery. And hence, too, the amendment to the Queen’s Speech, tabled by Peter Lilley and Paula Sherriff, a Labour MP, “respectfully [regretting] that a Bill to protect the National Health Service from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership was not included in the Gracious Speech”. Labour and SNP combined to promise support for the amendment. Defeat loomed for the Government. The last time a government lost a vote on an amendment to the Queen’s Speech it had to resign (in 1924, for those who are interested).
And so it is, returning to where we began, that the Government accepted an amendment to the Queen’s Speech by which it is not convinced and which may have been supported by some Tory MPs who don’t believe in it either – but are so angry with Downing Street’s conduct that they were prepared to back it. Now it should be added that this version of events may not be right in some respects, including some of those that matter most. For example, Heseltine needs no urging from Number 10 to take up his battle-chipped sword on behalf of a cause to which he has a religious attachment. Those Conservative Leave supporters might well have tabled the amendment anyway.
Furthermore, David Cameron would probably not have had to resign had the amendment been carried. None the less, one certainty can be glimpsed amidst this swirling fog – other than the commonsense observation that relations between Downing Street and some Tory Leave-backing MPs is very bad indeed. It is about Peter Lilley, who has previously written at length on this site about why the NHS needs, in his view, to be protected from the effects of the TTIP.
His main objection is to the role of supranational tribunals in its workings. “We should question whether ISDS tribunals are necessary, reject the 20-year stabilisation clause and insist on excluding the NHS from the treaty (as France has excluded movies),” he said. Lilley’s position on the matter might seem odd, given his reputation as a free marketeer.
But it isn’t. Strange though the news may be to some, the former Cabinet Minister is a long-time champion of the NHS. Indeed, his support for it cost him his post as Deputy Leader of the Party under William Hague. A brief account of what happened is as follows.
Lilley delivered a lecture arguing that “the free market has only a limited role in improving public services” – an exposition of his long-held view and an exploration of early modernisation. “Most Conservatives have always accepted that the public services are intrinsically unsuited to replacement by universal delivery through the free market,” he told his audience, before turning specifically to the NHS and shredding the case for an insurance-based system instead.
Cue outrage from some of his colleagues and from the right-of-centre papers in Fleet Street. Shortly afterwards, William Hague axed Lilley as Deputy Leader and sacked him from the Shadow Cabinet. “Speculation at Westminster suggested Mr Lilley had been axed, though the party insisted he had simply stepped down,” the Guardian reported. “He sparked an internal party row earlier this year by apparently seeking to realign Tory policy on the public services away from the Thatcher years.”
So there you it. Far from being a johnny-come-lately to the cause of defending the NHS, support for it once cost Peter Lilley his job.