Parliamentary warfare breaks out in Lords over NHS bill

Their lordships should brace themselves for a return to the trench warfare that convulsed the upper house at the start of this year.

The language used by Labour during the second reading debate on Andrew Lansley's Health and Social Care Bill leaves little doubt that they intend to do their best to stop it in its tracks.

Regardless of what happens later today to the Owen/Hennessey amendment (see previous posts) where the voting is seen as too close to call, the battle over the Lansley bill is sure to be bitter and prolonged.

One sign of the impending storm is the much-remarked appointment as a Labour whip in the Lords of the legendary bruiser Tommy McAvoy - who has a fearsome reputation from his days as a Commons whip.

His tactical streetsmarts could add to the government's woes, but Labour peers didn't need him in post to bring consideration of the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill almost to a halt in January, and the government is clearly worried at the prospect of a repeat performance.

Earl Howe, the junior health minister piloting the bill in the Lords, attempted to negotiate a programme for consideration of the bill with Lord Owen - who, as a crossbencher, was in no position to deliver any kind of agreement.

Whether Lord Owen gets his special select committee to consider aspects of the bill, or not, we can expect a blizzard of amendments to the bill for consideration at committee.

They will be spoken about at length, withdrawn before a vote, reincarnated at report stage, debated at length again, and then voted on at snail's pace, and then revisited in a different form at third reading.

Call it filibustering, or thorough debate, this vast bill could be masticated in the Lords for a very long time indeed, perhaps crowding out other bills, until the end of the parliamentary year looms in April.

At that point, the Lords acquires considerable leverage. If the bill is not agreed by both Houses come the prorogation of Parliament towards the end of April, it either falls or has to be carried forward into the next session.

And if the Lords keep insisting on changes, the government faces the uncomfortable choice of gutting their bill still further, or of prolonging the agony into the next parliamentary year.

UPDATE: The coalition has just rolled right over the Owen/Hennessey amendment. It was defeated by 330 to 262 - a pretty resounding defeat.

Lord Rea's amendment to throw the bill out alotogether was defeated by a similar margin.

But no one should doubt that those are just preliminary skirmishes.

UPDATE TWO: Looking at the breakdown of voting, the coaltion vote held almost completely firm with only two Liberal Democrat peers, Jenny Tonge and Emma Nicholson, backing the Owen/Hennessey amendment - along with 198 Labour peers, 46 crossbenchers and 6 bishops.

The overwhelming majority of Lib Dem peers - 80 - voted against, along with 51 crossbenchers and 193 Conservatives, plus 10 "others" - including former Labour ministers Chris Smith and Jeff Rooker, who now sit as unaligned peers.