We lost. But the fight continues

Labour cannot let the coalition ruin the NHS.

It was a tense two days: attention was focused, argument was heeded. Heads nodded in agreement. There was no barracking. We're a polite lot in the Lords. The second reading of the Health and Social Care Bill was introduced by the Health Minister the Earl Howe. He was universally praised for the thoughtful and exact way he introduced this legislation. Willowy of stature with a slick of grey hair his quiet voice commanded the Chamber. He could, as Labour Baroness Donaghy remarked have "made this Titanic of a Bill sound like one of Abromovitch's yachts". We're a polite lot in the Lords but we make our differences clear.

There were 100 speakers over a day and a half, with 41 of them women, and up to six bishops sitting together, their white sleeves billowing like foam on the bishops' benches. The Archbishop of York made a powerful speech in favour of Lord Owen's amendment that proposed the setting up of a new Select Committee to scrutinise contentious issues around the duties of the legal accountability of the Secretary of State, such a Committee to run in parellel as the House of Lords itself debated remaining clauses. But first there was Labour Peer Lord Rea's amendment that "this House declines to give the bill a second reading...." Labour peers voted for both and both amendments would be lost, by 134 and 68 respectively.

Many cited their personal background: Baroness Kennedy spoke of her surgeon husband's family, a dynasty of doctors who wanted no part of anything other than a publicly funded and provided National Health Service: Lord Alderdice spoke of his extensive medical family too: sadly they were on different sides. Everyone spoke of being inundated with letters, emails and briefings. Passions ran high: some of us feared the NHS was being handed over to privatisation. Baroness Murphy called this "twaddle". Baroness Bottomley called it "romantic poppycock" and gave a warm welcome to the bill. She also managed to praise the merits of Tesco, a connection that didn't seem appropriate. Lord Mawhinny condemned what he believed was an unprecedented.level of scaremongering. Those of us who are genuinely scared spoke of the risk of the free market, of going the way of America which spends 2.4 times more on health per person than Britain and yet has life expectancy levels lower than here.

By the end of day one the numbers in the Chamber had thinned. Former trade unionist Bill Morris's turn to speak came at around midnight. But next morning the Chamber steadily filled up. The ailing Philip Gould turned up to support Labour; the recently widowed Lord Saatchi arrived to support the coalition. Some wondered whether Mrs Thatcher might come among us.

At the last minute there was a sudden flurry of discussion about whether Lord Owen's proposals could be brought in by a certain date. Last minute expectations and fears coalesced around this minor spat. And then it was time to line up in the lobbies.

And so we lost. Being fewer in number, Labour could only have carried the day if enough Cross benchers and Lib Dems came across and voted with us. And not enough did. So the Bill now goes to its committee stage, a time when a cascade of amendments will be tabled, each one argued to death and perhaps significant changes brought to this unwieldy and unwelcome bill. We face hard days ahead, but every inch gained will be worth it. We all know that the British public want the NHS to survive as they know it, only better. Labour were on the way to doing that. We can't let the coalition ruin it.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.