Ukip has taken the surprise step of disowning its own party leader Nigel Farage's call for a debate on funding the NHS through a US-style private insurance system.
The Ukip leader told the BBC that all parties will “have to return” to the debate, despite admitting to failing "outright" to persuade the party in 2012 to back this form of NHS privatisation.
In response to Farage's comments, Ukip's health spokeswoman Louise Bours MEP warned that the party's members would inevitably reject their party leader's proposed health insurance system if it came up for debate again.
She went on: “Nigel is entitled to his opinion and others are entitled to theirs, we don’t whip people into all thinking the same thing, like the establishment parties. As he has said before, he raised the idea for discussion a while ago, the party discussed at and rejected it.
“I am certain that if the party discuss it again, we will reject it again. The vast majority of Ukip members, the British public and I will always favour a state funded NHS.”
Ukip's Louise Bours says she "will always favour a state funded NHS"
The rift between Farage and his party over the NHS has re-emerged just as the party's policy chief, Tim Aker, stepped down amid reports that he had been struggling to write a complete manifesto.
Aker, feted as a rising star in Ukip, was supposed to have finished the manifesto by the end of January, but the party's deputy chairwoman has had to be parachuted in to rescue the process and finish it off at breakneck speed.
Aker's failure to finish the manifesto is an especially acute embarassment as the 29 year old was supposed to put together a better manifesto than the one the party offered in 2010, which Farage later condemned as "drivel" and claimed to have never read.
A senior Ukip insider vented: “There was growing disquiet that none of us had seen hide nor hair on the policy front. It was especially annoying for candidates, who are banned from making any specific pledges before the manifesto is published. They don’t know what to tell voters on the doorstep.”
Last year, Farage was forced to backtrack on comments he made in 2012 after a footage emerged of him stating that he would "feel more comfortable" with the NHS run by private companies and organised under an insurance-based system.
He later insisted it was just an idea he "threw out for debate", with the party's policy on the NHS now "settled" against privatisation.
But now, asked by BBC political editor Nick Robinson for his documentary "Can Democracy Work?" if he stood by his view that the NHS could not be sustainably funded just from the public purse, Farage said: "There is no question that healthcare provision is going to have to be very much greater in 10 years than it is today, with an ageing population, and we’re going to have to find ways to do it.”
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Farage's remarks were condemned by Labour shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, who said: “Nigel Farage has confirmed that a vote for Ukip is a vote for the privatisation of the NHS and for a full American healthcare system.
“Farage admits he says one thing in public about the NHS but another behind closed doors. He has shown Ukip’s statements on protecting the NHS to be hollow.
“Ukip claim to stand up for working people, but in reality they are more Tory than the Tories. Farage will never be able to distance himself from his real views. He should be honest with the public.”
The Ukip leader has tried today to dismiss the row, blaming it on "dirty tricks" by other parties and the media.
However, despite stressing his opposition to handing control of the NHS to "faceless private-sector companies", Farage has also in the past called for corporations to be allowed to "run the National Health Service and streamline it".
He told the Telegraph: “I genuinely do think, when you... occasionally hear of a big businessman that says he’d like to run the National Health Service and streamline it, and get better value for money, I think that’s the approach we’ve got to take.”
"If you're going to cut government spending," the party leader made clear as he hosted a phone-in with the newspaper's readers, "you have to decide where those cuts are going to come."
Ukip has also dismissed suggestions that it wants privatisation and "even deeper cuts" to the NHS as "Labour lies". However, deputy leader Paul Nuttall once wrote that the "very existence of the NHS stifles competition".
Arguing that it was "not fit for purpose in the 21st century", Nuttall went on to congratulate the coalition for "bringing a whiff of privatisation into the beleaguered National Health Service".
Meanwhile, former Ukip economics spokesman Godfrey Bloom has suggested charging people to visit their GP. Speaking to the Guardian, he insisted: "It's not free! We all have to pay for it."