Village People: Lansley's NHS reforms show the Lords is in rude health

  • @andymcsmith

If the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, achieves nothing more during his time in the Cabinet, he can boast of being the minister who pulled in a record crowd in the House of Lords.

When David Owen put forward a proposal that would have snarled up Mr Lansley's proposed NHS reforms in protracted parliamentary procedure, no fewer than 592 peers turned out to vote – 330 for the Government, 262 for the Opposition.

It is the highest turnout since Labour cut the Lords down to size by removing the hereditary peers, and not far below the 20th-century record of 621 who voted on the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. That was the highest recorded vote since 1831.

Even Phillip Gould, Tony Blair's former pollster, who is "in the death zone" with terminal cancer, was there to vote against the government.

Lord Owen's speech was punctuated by just one unfriendly interruption, from Lord Ashdown. "What on earth is our function?" Lord Ashdown demanded, to which Lord Owen retorted: "It would have been easier if you had been able to spend the time here and heard the debate."

The back story to this exchange is that when the short-lived Social Democratic Party merged with the Liberals 24 years ago, Paddy Ashdown became leader of the newly created Liberal Democrat Party, while David Owen was the party pooper, leading a rump SDP which split the vote and nearly drove the Lib Dems out of business. These old political feuds never die.

The Cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell – aka GOD – who announced his retirement this week, is not known to have done anything rash in 32 years as a civil servant, but there was one occasion during a session of the Council of Europe, in Copenhagen in June 1993, when he drew a curious crowd of journalists who were surprised to see a familiar tall, pale figure, crouched over a roulette wheel in a hotel casino at 1 am. O'Donnell appeared to be on a losing streak, but with the hacks looking on, he calmly turned his losses into winnings. Out of that evening arose a myth that Sir Gus, a trained economist who could do the mathematics, had an infallible system for beating the roulette wheel. Sadly this is not quite true. He was using a variant of the Martingale system, which is not new or infallible, although it is more reliable than taking pot luck. You can look it up.

Creep of the week: Monday's meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party was commemorated in this tweet, by Jamie Reed, the MP for Copeland: "Fantastic address by Ed Miliband at PLP tonight. Tails are up, most buoyant I've seen for years. Incredibly energised." Give the man a job.

Another target for Labour's cuckoo in the nest

There was a flutter in the blogosphere this week when the Labour blogger Dan Hodges fell out with the New Statesman because his attacks on Ed Miliband were jeopardising the magazine's relationship with the Labour leader. Mr Hodges has moved to the website of The Daily Telegraph. In his inaugural blog there, Hodges attributed the rift with the New Statesman to his being "an old fashioned neo-Blairite". The billing at the head of the blog describes him as "a Blairite cuckoo in the nest".

Wind back to 2005, when plotters were scheming to lever Tony Blair out of 10 Downing Street. On 12 May 2005, the Evening Standard carried a warning to the Prime Minister: "Seasoned spin doctor Dan Hodges, whose mother is dissident Labour MP Glenda Jackson, has been touring the press corridors at Westminster, pushing anti-Blair lines on obliging journalists and speaking conspiratorially on his mobile telephone..."

Could the Dan Hodges who was pushing anti-Blair lines then be the same Dan Hodges who is now the Blairite cuckoo in the nest?