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Editorial Tuesday 24 January 2012: Lord Owen email to Labour raises interesting questions

Hat off to Robert Winnett of the Telegraph for this story, based on an authentic-looking email from Lord Owen to Labour's Lords health team leads Jeremy Beecham, Glenys Thornton and Philip Hunt.

Owen offers the Labour team (which once upon a time was his party) strategic advice in the email, raising the possibility of a confidence vote on the Coalition Government in 2013. He suggests that a Labour campaign on a 'save the NHS' ticket would require four 'red line amendments'.


Click here for details of 'Taking the pith out of the Health & Social Care Bill - “Integrate my chutzpah”, says Andrew ‘Not Looking For  A Fight’ Lansley', the new issue of subscription-based Health Policy Intelligence.


Lord Owen's email says, "“The truth is that the NHS is now seen by the country as a major dividing line between the Labour Party and that of the Conservative Party and, surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats.”

“I suggest you need four absolute red line amendments from which you do not move and which you promise to implement urgently as soon as you return to government; for many other amendments and issues you can support Liberal Democrats and cross-benchers.”

“This would be the subject for emergency legislation if you became the Government on a loss of confidence motion in 2013 or after a general election in 2015. If Labour is to effectively campaign on 'saving the NHS’ you have to be clear what you are saving and have the determination to legislate in a very short Bill in a matter of months”.

The first thing to point out about the email is the date: October 14 of 2011. Thus it is not recent, and in fact came just two days after the Lords second reading vote on the Health Bill.  As part of that session, Lord Owen's 'special committee' amendment was defeated with Lib Dem peers' votes.

The timing is, however, interesting. As the story states, Lord Owen is due to chair the Parliamentary meeting tomorrow of the Royal Medical Colleges (blessed be their wine cellars). This email could have been in the Telegraph's - or the Coalition Government leadership's - hands for some time.

The Royal Colleges meeting tomorrow offers a nice, ready-made occasion for its use.

Cui bono?
So the question of cui bono - who benefits - is not obscure.

A more interesting question is who leaked it.

It would be reasonable to assume that Lord Owen did not cc his email to any Conservative peer. You can see in the story that two lines' worth of cc'd names are redacted.

Those cc'd could be Lib Dem politicians, or cross-benchers.

It was, as we know, sent to Labour's health team in the Lords. Would anyone in Labour have a good motive to burn Lord Owen?

The timing suggests not. If a Labour politician or apparatchik wanted revenge for Owen's quitting the party in The Gang Of Four to form the SDP in 1981, they could have burned him at any time - and would be unlikely to have chosen the Telegraph, which as I have pointed out more than once, is the Coalition's leak receptacle of choice.

Could a Lib Dem have done it? Mmmm. They are in the Coalition, and voted in numbers against his amendment and in support of the Bill. However, there are more and deeper splits within Lib Dem peers on NHS reform than the tale of the Hansard shows.

Cross-benchers to whom Lord Owen might have sent it lack obvious motivation.

It could, of course, have just been left lying around in a paper copy (which the Telegraph clearly have).

Another possibility is that it is cc'd to some of the great and the good in the medical profession. Who might have started to feel that the NHS was becoming a bit too much of a political football - so time to drop the coach in it to the chairman.

Interesting questions. Interesting times.