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Thursday, December 3, 1998 Published at 18:58 GMT

UK Politics

Row could ease Lords reform

Reforming the Lords could be easier than expected

Before the Tories' disarray in the Lords, only one thing was certain about the forthcoming legislative battle to remove hereditary peers from the upper chamber: the opposition would make sure it was a long, long fight.

Political commentator Andrew Marr: "The end of the great Tory dominance of the House of Lords"
Now things could be looking up for the government and its plans to take the hereditaries out of the legislature.

The government slimmed down its legislative programme, outlined in last month's Queen's speech, in anticipation of Tory peers eating into parliamentary time by blocking the as-yet unpublished reform bill.

Ministers privately accepted the need to "do a deal" on Lords reform with the Tories in order to speed through changes that could otherwise take around two years to achieve.

[ image: Viscount Cranborne: Summarily sacked by William Hague for his unilateral deal-making with Labour]
Viscount Cranborne: Summarily sacked by William Hague for his unilateral deal-making with Labour
Tory leader William Hague's rejection of Labour's behind-doors offer to reprieve nearly 100 hereditaries in return for co-operation on the reform does not necessarily scotch Tony Blair's chances of getting it through quicker than anticipated.

In the fall-out over his sacking of Viscount Cranborne, Mr Hague said he would accept the government's offer to allow the active peers to temporarily remain in the House of Lords.

And, although he also insisted he reserved the right to fight Labour's reform plans, it is far from clear whether he will be able to marshal peers in sufficient force to wage trench warfare in the Lords against the bill when it gets there.

The row over Lord Cranborne's wheeling, dealing and sacking shows that Tory peers are far from happy with the line their elected leader in the Commons has set down. That could mean Labour facing a less rebellious Lords than it originally envisaged.

Considering the discontent among Tory peers and crossbenchers over Mr Hague's rejection of the deal and dismissal of Lord Cranborne, the government may calculate it has no need to offer the opposition any deal at all. Why not by-pass the Conservatives altogether?

[ image: William Hague: Rejects any deal that would prevent the Tories from opposing the reform bill]
William Hague: Rejects any deal that would prevent the Tories from opposing the reform bill
Lady Jay has already warned that if the Tories refused to co-operate with the reform programme, then the whole deal was off.

"If we have not got Tory co-operation then we will press ahead with the bill [to abolish hereditary peers' rights to sit and vote in the Lords] as we always intended to do," she declared.

So technically, the government is back to square one on the Lords: it will abolish the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the upper house, as "stage one" of reforming the chamber to make it more democratic and representative.

And a Royal Commission will be set up to look into the question of what shape "stage two" - the long-term reforms - should take.

In the meantime, the "interim chamber" will be made up of life peers. This would be the wholly-appointed "House of Cronies" the Tories have been complaining about.

They insist that while they are not against the principle of reforming the Lords, the government's staged plans are the equivalent of sending the nation's constitution on a hazardous journey with no final destination.

What is clear now is that wherever the constitution ends up, it is the Tories' two parliamentary parties - one in the Commons, the other in the Lords - that look as if they may not arrive in one piece.

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