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The Liberal Democrats claimed a major victory today over their Conservative Party coalition partners by persuading them to reduce the use of US style punctuation in the NHS bill.

In a major speech on the subject, the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg said:

We have gone through the bill with a fine tooth comb and I have told the Prime Minister there are many parts of the bill which are unacceptable to us. Particularly the Tories’ insistence on repeatedly using a comma before the word ‘and’. This is completely unsatisfactory to most people in the UK and by insisting on these important changes to the bill, the Liberal Democrats have shown that we are able to stand up for what’s right.

In an attempt to avoid a damaging backlash at the Lib Dem spring conference in Gateshead next week, the deputy prime minister joined forces with Lady Williams of Crosby and released a joint letter to Liberal Democrat activists, reassuring them they would do everything to protect the NHS by introducing amendments to rule out beyond any doubt the introduction of US-style punctuation to the bill:

We have discovered a few instances buried deep inside the legislation where cleft sentences were unacceptably replaced with a subordinate clause and a couple of cases where infinitives were actually split. But we, as Liberal Democrats, have stood by our principles and insisted that unless proper changes are made to ensure commas are not put before conjunctions, we will not be able to support this bill in its present form.

Labour, who have managed to get more than 150 peers out on to the red leather benches before over the unacceptable punctuation, claimed it was “a grammatical mess of Andrew Lansley‘s own making”.

The shadow health spokesman, Andy Burnham, said:

The Tories are trying to introduce US style punctuation into the NHS bill by the back door. After 12 months of debate, it is an indictment that the government still does not know what it thinks on a question as basic as how to use commas in its NHS reforms.

In response to the Liberal Democrats’ concerns, the Tories have said they are willing to make a few amendments to the punctuation in the bill to provide more clarity – just so long as it didn’t involve making any actual changes to the parts which guarantee them huge kickbacks from private healthcare companies.

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