BBC BLOGS - Nick Robinson's Newslog

Archives for May 2011

A new look

Nick Robinson | 12:32 UK time, Thursday, 12 May 2011

packing box


Thank you for reading my blog. As of today it is moving to a new home, with a fresh format and that old cartoon gets replaced by a photo - which I'm not sure is wise for a bald man with bottle bottom specs but progress is progress.

Visit my new page to see all of my reports, analysis and musings in one place - including video, audio and news stories. Oddly, though the first to blog at the BBC, I'm being a little slow to adapt to tweeting - at the moment I just tweet my blog posts but I will endeavour to take the great leap forward soon. Those tweets will also appear in my new page soon.

Happy anniversary

Nick Robinson | 12:40 UK time, Wednesday, 11 May 2011

There were touching messages today from one partner to another on their first anniversary:

Nick: We don't like cutting but the Tories do.

David: There's only one party you can trust on the NHS.

Brings a warm glow to your heart, doesn't it?

Who's saving the NHS from who?

Nick Robinson | 11:40 UK time, Monday, 9 May 2011

As you listen to Liberal Democrats declare that they are riding to the rescue of the NHS I can't help recalling a story I heard a while ago. It relates to Nick Clegg's reaction to attending a service at Westminster Abbey to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the NHS. As well as prayers and blessings the service on 2 July 2008 included a speech by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the reverential playing of a sound recording of a speech by the founder of the NHS, Labour's Aneurin Bevan. Clegg complained to friends that only in Britain would they turn an organisational structure into a cause for a religious service.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Nick Clegg Speak With NHS Staff In Surrey on 06 April 2011


Clegg, you see, is rather more radical than some have recognised. In part, that's because of his strong European roots - he was brought up by a Dutch mother, worked in Brussels for the European Commission and then became an MEP. British affection for the NHS stems partly from memories passed down the generations of what health care was like before it was created and in large part from a comparison with American healthcare. From a European perspective the NHS doesn't look that special. After all you're not asked for your credit card before going to hospital in France or Holland.

No wonder then that Clegg signed up to the Orange Book - published in September 2004 - which proposed that the UK should adopt a Euro style health insurance model. His ally David Laws - who'll be back in the spotlight this week - wrote the chapter which observed that:

"The NHS is a system that fails to allow for the disciplines of choice, diversity and competition which can help to ratchet up standards"

The current NHS proposals were drawn up not just by the Tory Andrew Lansley but by his Lib Dem Deputy Paul Burstow. They were reviewed and approved not just by the Conservative Oliver Letwin but by Clegg's soulmate Danny Alexander. The foreword to them was signed not just by David Cameron but by Nick Clegg too.

So they are, to coin a phrase, all in it together when it comes to the NHS.

Both Cameron and Clegg realised too late the political danger of the reforms they'd agreed to. Both are now trying to reassure voters that they are not planning to privatise the NHS and to assuage the anger of hospital consultants and nurses who fear that GPs will not fund them as generously as politicians who, down the years, have found campaigns to keep hospitals open hard to resist. Both know NHS reforms that go wrong could destroy their personal as well as political reputations.

The battle is on for the credit for changes which - in broad outline if not all detail - have, I'm told, been agreed. After staging 100 meetings in which 10,000 NHS staff have been engaged I am told by a Tory source that it is a statement of the obvious that "no bill is better than a bad bill" but that "everyone expects to improve and not dump" the NHS plan.

Lest anyone read this blog as me suggesting that the Lib Dems are a threat to the NHS or that both Coalition partners are equally a threat let me be clear. I am not. Indeed, choice, diversity and competition are words that were used by previous Labour Health Secretaries who allowed private companies to provide not just cleaning or pharmaceutical but clinical services.

Ever since the NHS became a national religion politicians have competed to say that they love it more or can be trusted to save it. However, for more than two decades - ever since the Conservative White Paper of 1989 when Margaret Thatcher decided to keep the health service and not to dismantle it - debate has been about how much choice, diversity and competition it is possible and desirable to have within the NHS.

Update 17:00: Lib Dem sources insist it was their man - not the prime minister - who brought about the "pause" in the NHS reforms when he threatened to halt the Bill altogether if  David Cameron refused to review it.

In response to my earlier post they do not deny that Nick Clegg is a "health reformer" and you can see why. Thanks to The Independent for reminding me of an interview they ran in September 2005 in which Clegg - then his party's foreign affairs spokesman - said "I think breaking up the NHS is exactly what you do need to do to make it a more responsive service" and refused to rule out an insurance based model.

"I don't think anything should be ruled out. I think it would be really, really daft to rule out any other model from Europe or elsewhere. I do think they deserve to be looked out because frankly the faults of the British health service compared to others still leave much to be desired."

Be careful what you wish for

Nick Robinson | 18:08 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011

To think that elections used to be boring. Predictable.

Nick Clegg


Just like the general election held exactly a year ago - today produced results no-one predicted with consequences which are totally unpredictable.

Many may have foreseen the drubbing Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats would receive but few foresaw its scale - losing not just to Labour in the Northern cities, not just to the SNP in Scotland but - irony of ironies - to their coalition partners the Conservatives in parts of the South.

And who would have dared predict that David Cameron would be out tonight celebrating councils and councillors gained - if, that is, he hadn't decreed that his party must not be seen to gloat.

And all this before the final results of a referendum which looks certain to bring suppressed grins to Tory faces and further gloom to Liberal Democrats.

So what now for the coalition? The talk is of a more business-like, less chummy relationship; of some disagreements publicly aired rather than always privately resolved; of Liberal Democrats fighting - their chosen word - to avoid what Nick Clegg called this morning "a return to Thatcherism".

How will that work? No-one can possibly know. Just as no-one can know how the new Scottish government will manage with a parliamentary majority committed to delivering independence whilst public opinion shows no appetite for it.

David Cameron and Alex Salmond are the two clear winners of today but they may soon be pondering that old Chinese proverb - be careful what you wish for.

Funny old game

Nick Robinson | 15:09 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011

As we await the result of the referendum on changing our voting system I can't help noticing that proportional representation has delivered a stable, majority government in Scotland whilst good, old fashioned first past the post produced a hung parliament and a coalition in Westminster.

Whither the Coalition now?

Nick Robinson | 09:09 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011

It was inevitable after a night like that. Someone somewhere would call for Nick Clegg to resign. The defeated leader of Nottingham's Lib Dems, Gary Long, was the first to the microphone. If he got the backing of 74 local parties there would have to be a leadership contest. But where are they? And who support such an idea? And who would run against Clegg?

What is striking so far is that those councillors who lost in Sheffield and Liverpool and Hull gave their leader and the Coalition their backing. So too did backbench rebels Mike Hancock and Adrian Saunders...and Chris Huhne, who was widely thought to be "on manoeuvres" after his clash over the Cabinet table with David Cameron and George Osborne...and Tim Farron the party's president and young pretender.

So, for now the pressure is not for the Coalition to end or Clegg to go but for him to fight harder and more publicly for Lib Dem policies and against what he himself called this morning "a return to Thatcherism".

Stand by, therefore, for more Coalition rows on the NHS, on banking reform, on immigration and tax. Standby for less ministerial chumminess and more business-like negotiations.

Don't hold your breath though for a change of leader or an end to the Coalition.

Most Liberal Democrats will try first to prove - in Paddy Ashdown's words - that "compromise is not betrayal".

Elections - the agony and the ecstasy

Nick Robinson | 07:16 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011

Elections can bring relief, agony, joy and doubt.

David Cameron must scarcely be able to believe his luck this morning.

A year after failing to win the general election and having announced deep and painful spending cuts he will be deeply relieved that - so far at least - his party has barely received a scratch from the electorate. Losses may still follow but on nothing like the scale once feared.

The reason is clear - it's his coalition partner who has absorbed all the pain. Nick Clegg will have watched in agony as his party headed towards its worst share of the vote in its history and as they were routed in the Northern cities he was so proud to control.

And then there was the surprise of the night - Scotland. The Nationalists' stunning series of results will bring them joy. They were, above all, a personal victory for Alex Salmond. He is re-shaping the politics of his country and dreams of going much further.

Which leaves Ed Miliband. Once all the results are in - he should be be able to celebrate the fact that Labour will govern Wales again, will have many more councillors and a greater share of the vote.

Yet his party will have their doubts when they see it is their enemies - the Tories and the Nationalists - who have the biggest smiles this morning.

Will Bin Laden's death hasten withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Nick Robinson | 12:15 UK time, Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Further to my post yesterday I note the prime minister's words on the impact which the death of Bin Laden will have on the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan.

British soldier watches as a Chinook takes off from Camp Delhi, Helmand Province

"It's clearly a helpful development I don't necessarily think it will change any timetables but we should use it as an opportunity to say to the Taliban now is the moment to separate yourself from Al Qaeda to give up violence"

More significantly he stressed the possibility of a political deal with the Taliban rather than a military defeat.

"If we can therefore get a political reconciliation in Afghanistan, persuading the Taliban that now is the time to achieve the goals they have through political means rather than military ones then we could get a more rapid solution"

Mr Cameron was quick to deny he was looking at an earlier withdrawal, but nevertheless the political clock on our involvement in Afghanistan is ticking a little faster.

Bin Laden's death

Nick Robinson | 10:28 UK time, Monday, 2 May 2011

America is rejoicing. George Bush promised Bin Laden - dead or alive. President Obama has delivered that promise and, crucially, before America marked the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Others are better placed than me to analyse what this means for Al-Qaeda and for events in the Arab world. The politics of this news, though, seem pretty clear.

Obama was elected to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For many Americans the loss of life there was justified only as a response to the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11. The talk of spreading freedom and democracy, improving the life chances of the residents of Bagdhad or educating Afghan girls - nation building in short - was never popular. The news of Bin Laden's death will, I predict, encourage many Americans to believe that the war which began on 11th September 2001 is finally over and that it is time their boys came home.

A President who some said could not be re-elected may soon look hard to beat. His political advisers are likely to want to seal this victory by ending operations in Afghanistan as soon as they can. It is Obama, just as much David Cameron, who will determine when British troops come home.

Obama has looked mightily reluctant to get drawn further into conflict in Libya or into new conflicts elsewhere. There is a danger for David Cameron that today's news increases that reluctance. 'After a popular victory why risk a defeat.' his advisers may ask.

The security challenges of 2011 - in Syria, Libya, Egypt Iran and elsewhere - have little to do with the man George Bush identified as his country's greatest enemy in 2001. Nevertheless, today's news of the death of Osama Bin Laden could have a profound effect on the decisions taken about the future.

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