ir Ed Davey has called for a new legal right for cancer patients to start treatment within two months of an urgent referral, using a keynote speech to underline the Liberal Democrats’ focus on health.
The party has said enshrining the commitment in law would make ministers more accountable for failing to reach the target, which is currently a pledge of the Tory Government.
Lib Dem officials say the policy is expected to cost about £4 billion to deliver over the course of five years.
In his rallying cry to delegates gathered in Bournemouth for what could be the party’s last annual conference before a general election expected next year, Sir Ed said “voting Conservative is bad for your health”.
A personal section of the speech saw him recall losing both of his parents to cancer as a child, telling members: “My family’s story isn’t unique.
“There are millions of us whose lives get turned upside down by cancer. I fervently hope we can build a consensus across politics to make cancer a top priority in the next Parliament.”
Officials say the party’s proposed legislation would involve patients reporting complaints to the health ombudsman, starting a process which could ultimately end with the Government facing legal action.
Elsewhere, the Lib Dem leader heightened his attack on the Conservatives, which his party is seeking to oust in so-called “blue wall” seats in places like southern England.
We will hold the Government to account for every target it misses and every patient it fails. We will never stop fighting for better care for you and your loved ones
He recalled having branded the Tories “clowns” following the Somerton and Frome by-election won by Sarah Dyke, adding: “”I’m sorry. I used the wrong c-word.”
Some 62.6% who had their first treatment in July after an urgent referral had waited under two months, up from 59.2% in June, according to latest health service performance data.
NHS Confederation welcomed the commitment but cast doubt on how it would guarantee patients are seen within two months.
“It’s not clear how the proposed legislation… would be implemented, particularly in a context with over 100,000 vacancies in the NHS,” director of policy Dr Layla McCay said.
The party has not yet fully costed its health policy, which is the centrepiece of a pre-manifesto aimed at wooing traditionally Tory voters.
It has promised to do so nearer the next election.
The Lib Dem election strategy will be to target Tory heartlands where, buoyed by a series of by-election and local election successes, the party hopes to make significant gains.
The leader did not mention Brexit directly, but earned perhaps his loudest applause when he told the conference hall the party would seek to “fix our broken relationship with Europe”.
Sir Ed has been reluctant to speak publicly about the ultimate goal of rejoining the EU, which is current party policy, saying it is not currently on the table.
He told delegates: “So much unnecessary pain inflicted on so many by so few. And only the Liberal Democrats have consistently stood up against it.
“Only we have set out a detailed plan to tear down those trade barriers, fix our broken relationship with Europe and get a better deal for Britain.”
He said Labour’s plan is “nowhere near that ambitious”, adding: “Labour has a long way still to go, which means it’s up to us to lead the way – a better economy, a better future, with Europe.”