UK Politics

Lib Dems becoming a human shield, says Clegg adviser

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Media captionNorman Lamb claims his party has become "a bit of a human shield"

The Lib Dems have become a "human shield" in the coalition and are taking "all of the flak" for policies supported by the Conservatives, Nick Clegg's chief adviser has said.

But Norman Lamb insisted his party was in partnership in government with the Tories "in the long term".

His comments follow election drubbings for the Lib Dems last week and come amid disagreements over NHS reform.

Labour said the coalition could not continue amid such "arguing".

On Sunday deputy prime minister - and Lib Dem leader - Nick Clegg vowed to be more assertive in his relationship with the Conservatives after senior Lib Dems said they were being unfairly blamed by voters for unpopular coalition decisions.

He promised to be a "moderating" influence on issues such as the NHS - a marked change in tone from the early days of the government.

It came as Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable said he had never had any illusions that the Conservatives were "ruthless, calculating and very tribal".

'Distinct ideology'

The Conservatives increased their share of the vote in Thursday's English local elections - rare for a party in government at a "mid-term" election.

And in sharp contrast to the Lib Dems, who lost about 700 councillors in England and 12 of their 17 MSPs at Holyrood, where the SNP scored an historic victory.

Mr Lamb told BBC Two's Daily Politics: "In a sense we have become a bit of a human shield in the coalition. We have taken all the flak for some of the positions that have been taken by this government.

"Whether that's inevitably the case for the junior partner I don't know... But we are in this for the long term."

Mr Lamb added: "We are a very distinct party and we have a distinct ideology."

Relations between the Conservatives and Lib Dems appear to have soured in the wake of a bitter campaign over changing the voting system - a proposition comprehensively rejected by voters in Thursday's referendum.

Mr Clegg has vowed to halt the government's Health and Social Care Bill, the source of much Lib Dem grassroots anger, if he is not personally happy with it.

'Gathering storm'

The bill, already backed by the House of Commons but still going through Parliament, would give GPs control of much of the NHS budget, remove some tiers of management and open the service up to more competition.

Prime Minister David Cameron "paused" its passage through Parliament in response to mounting anger among some health professionals and a resounding vote to reject it entirely at the Lib Dem spring conference.

Last month, Mr Lamb threatened to quit his coalition role unless changes were made to the NHS plans, citing the "financial risk of doing it too quickly", which, he argued, could damage patient care.

But he is now striking a more conciliatory tone, saying the government should be congratulated for responding to the "gathering storm" about the plans.

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Media captionConservative MP Peter Bone says "the sooner we can get rid of the Liberals the better"

He stressed that any changes should "not be regarded as a concession to the Liberal Democrats" and there had to be "agreement between the two parties to get the legislation through Parliament".

But Lib Dem MP Andrew George, a member of the Commons health select committee, said the bill should be "stopped rather than paused".

Some Conservative backbenchers think last week's election results have weakened the Lib Dems and are urging Mr Cameron against any more concessions over policies.

One of them, Peter Bone, said the Lib Dem ministers had to show more "collective responsibility" and stop "bleating" about the Conservatives.

Labour is holding a debate on the future of the NHS in the House of Commons later on Monday, accusing the government of having an "unjustified market-based approach" to reform.

Leader Ed Miliband said: "People don't want to see the coalition govern with this kind of arguments going on.

"Instead of coming along after they had made the NHS bill and arguing about it, the Lib Dems should have argued against it from the beginning."

A group set up to canvass NHS staff views on the government's proposals will report to Mr Cameron by the end of this month, with a response expected by the middle of June.

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