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Who will win the debate between Shirley Williams and Polly Toynbee

March 15, 2012 10:11 AM
By Chris Rennard in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

I spent some of last Saturday morning in the briefing session at the Lib Dem Conference with the Lib Dem parliamentary health team sitting just in front of Andrew Sparrow and Patrick Wintour (both of the Guardian) as Shirley Williams laid into Polly Toynbee's account in their paper of a key amendment on the Health Bill. For those of us who are fed up with Toynbee's 'tribal' attacks on the Lib Dems it was a joy to listen to.

Andrew Sparrow wrote a great account of Shirley's clear rebuttal of the Toynbee attack. He tweeted that, "It wouldn't be a Lib Dem conference without someone having a go at the Guardian". I then tweeted that it "Wouldn't be the Guardian without some distortion from some columnists of #LibDems". Patrick Wintour was quick to point out to me that he wasn't a columnist. I actually think that he is one of Britain's best journalists and his account of the Health debates at conference was probably the best that appeared this week.

The debate continued on Monday as Polly Toynbee hit back at Shirley Williams claiming that the cap on private income for hospitals would not prevent trusts seeking to rise to that level. The problem with Shirley Williams this argument is that it ignored other concessions secured by the Lib Dem team such as the one last week ensuring that any proposal to increase beyond 5% can be challenged by Monitor. It also ignores the series of major amendments that were resisted for so long by Andrew Lansley such as those guaranteeing the Secretary of State's responsibility for a comprehensive health service, power to intervene if things go wrong and accountability to Parliament. Polly Toynbee justified her her position by drawing attention to how "a second NHS hospital this week put itself up for takeover or private sale, after Hinchingbrooke was called a 'one-off'. But she ignored the facts that the process for selecting Circle to operate Hinchingbrooke hospital started under the last Labour government, and the decision to transfer the management was made using powers set up by Labour in 2001.

A good defence of Shirley's overall position also appeared in the Independent on Monday. For many Lib Dems it will be a question of whose judgement you can trust as well as what you know of the facts. Some of us will remember Polly Toynbee's rejection of the pro-merger views of her fellow SDP members and her decision to back the ill fated Owenite SDP in its attempt to spoil our efforts to launch the Lib Dems. Owen's 'party' failed spectacularly but its spoiling role contributed to the Tories narrowly winning a fourth term in 1992 he backed Major. Nor will we forget how she urged people to 'put a peg on their nose' and re-elect Tony Blair in 2005. If Labour had failed to get an overall majority then, Britain would probably have a very different government and political system today.

Shirley and NickThe most offensive attack on Shirley Williams, however, did not come from the Guardian but from Labour's Lord Hollick (in comments tweeted by Labour's front bench). He compared her to Lord Haw-Haw. Given that her mother was high on the list of people the Nazis intended to deal with if they invaded (her name was close to Churchill's on the list) this is particularly offensive. Having attended some of the health team meetings in the Lords I also know that it was completely false for some of her opponents to suggest that she did not write 'her' motion to the Conference.

In terms of where we are now, I thought that Shirley made another brilliant contribution to our debates in the Lords yesterday. It was not the position of someone betraying principles, nor of someone being subservient to the leadership but a candid view of what is best now and it is well worth reading.