The coalition is braced for further criticism of its NHS reforms today, with health secretary Andrew Lansley’s future still hanging in the balance.
David Cameron led efforts to shore up his Cabinet minister’s position on Sunday, insisting they were “at one” over the shake-up.
The prime minister used a broadsheet article to insist he was “at one” with Mr Lansley and backed the controversial NHS reforms going through parliament.
A series of senior Tories were also deployed to television studios in a bid to shore up the Cabinet minister’s position.
However, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes broke ranks to say Mr Lansley should be shifted from his post.
“My political judgment is that in the second half of the parliament it would be better to move on,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.
A source close to deputy prime minister Nick Clegg stressed that Mr Hughes had been expressing a personal opinion.
Several Conservative Cabinet ministers are said to have privately criticised Mr Lansley’s handling of the Health and Social Care Bill, with one suggesting the government’s problems were now on the scale of the Poll Tax in the 1980s.
A Downing Street source was also quoted last week saying that the health secretary should be “taken out and shot”.
However, writing in the Sunday Times, Mr Cameron stressed that there was no alternative to reform.
The prime minister - whose disabled son Ivan died in 2009 - said: “As a parent, night after night, I’ve known what it is to have the NHS by your side.
“But while the values are right, the system isn’t. It needs to change - and that is why I am at one with Andrew Lansley, the reform programme and the legislation going through Parliament.”
Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt dismissed the prospect of Mr Lansley being axed, insisting he would be seen as the “architect of the modern NHS” in the future.
“The first thing I want to say is that Andrew Lansley is absolutely the right person for this job,” he told Andrew Marr.
“Andrew Lansley is a decent man, passionate about the NHS and he knows what he is doing.”
He added: “It is completely wrong to make a judgment about someone when they are right in the middle of the storm.”
Labour stepped up its attack on the health reforms by releasing an internal Department of Health letter warning that too many trusts were failing to meet waiting time targets.
The missive, from NHS deputy chief executive David Flory to senior managers, revealed that in November 47 health-care commissioners and 30 acute care trusts failed to hit 18-week treatment targets.
“It is unacceptable for performance to fall below the expected standards,” Mr Flory insisted.