Living with the NHS bill
An intriguing sight in the canteen at Portcullis House this morning….SDP alumni Shirley Williams and David Owen deep in conversation.
I assume they were not previewing the forthcoming cricket season, and that the conversation revolved around Lord Owen's amendment to postpone Monday's third reading debate on the Health and Social Care Bill in the Lords.
Lord Owen does not think the bill should be passed until the House of Lords have had "at the very least" a chance to debate the freedom of information ruling that a document called NHS Transitional Risk Register should be disclosed.
This is the in-house assessment of the potential problems that could follow from the re-organisation of the NHS in England. Lord Owen denies this is a cunning attempt to block the bill - arguing that because the parliamentary year will not end until well after Easter, there is plenty of time to have the debate he wants and then for the bill to reach the statute book.
But I doubt the doctor, still reviled by Lib Dems for refusing to join their party in the late 1980s, is the man to lure their peers into a last moment rebellion, which would have the effect of prolonging the coalition's parliamentary agony. Support from the formidable Lady Williams might, just might, change that.
Tuesday's small scale rebellion by Lib Dem MPs, and Sunday's spring conference vote notwithstanding, the party in Parliament has given fairly solid support to the latest incarnation of the bill in both the Commons and the Lords.
Phrases like "pulling the teeth", "drawing out the poison" and, less vividly, "forcing the health secretary to make concessions" tip with practised ease from Lib Dem lips. They may not like the bill, but they (mostly) believe they can live with it. Standing in at PMQs today, Nick Clegg coped well with an over-scripted onslaught by Harriet Harman, and his Conservative colleagues could be heard congratulating him. He and his party are pretty firmly stapled to the much-amended version of the bill which will probably become law next week.
There was one interesting flash of steel from PMQs. Questioned by Conservative ex-cabinet minister Peter Lilley about how he would justify devoting much parliamentary time to Lords reform in the coming year, at a time of economic crisis, Mr Clegg rather pointedly noted that parliament had also devoted quite a lot of time to changing constituency boundaries - an exercise beloved of Conservative high command.
The unspoken thought hung in the air: the final orders to put the boundary changes into place have yet to be passed; and, perhaps, might not be passed if the Lib Dems don't get Lords reform.