While everyone in Westminster has their eyes glued to the Commons today, waiting for Liam Fox to answer questions about his links with Adam Werrity, there is some real old-school politics going on just down the corridor.
All day, peers have been locked in a series of meetings with whips and advisers from all three parties bending their ear on the health bill, which enters the Lords on Tuesday.
Government ministers are particularly worried the entire bill could be derailed by an amendment being brought by Lord David Owen, the former foreign secretary, and Lord Peter Hennessy, the constitutional expert, calling for it to be referred to an extraordinary committee. Such a committee could take months to reach a conclusion, and the government worries this could kill the bill altogether.
Labour peers will be strongly whipped into voting for the amendment, which party sources believe will leave them needing around 80 additional votes to carry it. They are targeting around 50 cross-benchers and bishops, and about 24 Lib Dems to join them.
I have just spoken to Lord Owen about his feelings about the bill. He told me he didn’t want to vote against it altogether, but would do so if he felt it hadn’t got enough scrutiny. He made his real feelings about it abundantly clear though. Here are just some of the choice things he had to say about it:
This bill has been treated in such a contemptuous manner, I have never known anything like it.
They pre-empted it – they completely destroyed PCTs already even before the second reading. They have no mandate for this… [which means] we are entitled to ask for exceptional measures to look at this bill.
You can’t have a non-elected quango handling questions about how to handle a pandemic. Parliament has to do that.
I call this bill the “secretary of state abdication bill”.
The basic problem with the bill is that it is in the hands of geeks. They thought if you make a distinction between providers and purchasers, parliament has to be shut out. That is absolutely b******t.
Lord Owen is meeting Earl Howe and others from the government side at 3pm. It is clear that in him they have a powerful potential enemy.