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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.