The fate of Lords reform now rests in Labour's hands

With the Tories irretrievably divided, the bill's future depends on Labour.

As was rumoured this morning, David Cameron has now dropped the programme motion on House of Lords reform, which would have limited debate on the bill to 10 days. With upwards of 70 Tories prepared to join Labour and vote against the motion, there was no hope of it making it past the Commons. In withdrawing the motion, Cameron has merely brought forward the government's defeat.

The second reading vote will still go ahead and, with the support of Labour, the bill will proceed with a large majority. But unless the government introduces a guillotine motion at a later date, the risk remains that MPs will talk it into the ground.

The upshot is that the fate of Lords reform now rests in Labour's hands. If Ed Miliband's party agrees to support closure motions to limit debate on the bill, the legislation could yet make it through the Commons. Responding to Cameron's move, Sadiq Khan has pledged that Labour will do all it can "to ensure the bill progresses". The party's opposition to the programme motion was not, he said, a "wrecking tactic" but an attempt to improve an "inadequate bill".

As Khan's words imply, Cameron and Nick Clegg will need to offer concessions in order to win his party's support. The most obvious would be a referendum on Lords reform, as proposed by Labour in its 2010 manifesto. This would have the added benefit of placating at least some of the Conservative rebels, such as Nadhim Zahawi and Rory Stewart, who have said they would be prepared to support the bill were a public vote promised. Others, flushed with success after the AV campaign, simply want the chance to give Clegg another bloody nose. (We must hope the voters decide otherwise.)

The Lib Dem leader has always resisted a referendum on the grounds that all three of the main parties supported reform in their manifestos. But with parliament divided, he will find it hard to argue that the people should not be given a say. Tonight, a referendum looks like the only way to avoid yet another defeat for reform.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has called for a referendum on Lords reform. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain