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Lords reform Tuesday, 19 January, 1999, 14:51 GMT
Lords face the chop
Margaret Thatcher spurned William Hague, then it got worse
By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

William Hague has had no shortage of bad days since he was elected Tory leader in the wake of Labour's crushing election victory over 18 months ago.

He has faced periodic whispering campaigns about possible challenges to his leadership.

He has seen his opinion poll ratings remaining stagnant at just above "nonentity" level.

And even the woman he once loved - former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - has spurned him.

Lords Reform
But Wednesday 2 December was without doubt his worst day ever.

Calculating he was onto a winner by revealing Labour's lack of principles - a regular and normally fruitful avenue of attack - he rose in the Commons to harangue Tony Blair for secretly planning to water down Labour's pledge to abolish hereditary peers' voting rights.

The prime minister was trying to do a deal with the Tories to keep a tenth of the hereditaries, in return for their acquiescence with the rest of the proposals. The Tories, he said, would have none of it.

Baroness Strange: One of those who quit the Tory Lords frontbench in sympathy with Viscount Cranborne
The tactic backfired in the most spectacular fashion when the delighted prime minister revealed that, far from having none of it, the Tory leader in the Lords, Viscount Cranborne, had actually done a secret deal with the government to exactly that effect.

Mr Hague stormed out of the Commons, sacked his rebellious Lord and immediately saw the entire Tory front bench in the upper House offering their resignations in protest.

Over the next couple of days he lost a fistful of Lords and saw claims he was not up to the job as opposition leader and couldn't control his own party.

He made matters worse by then declaring he would accept Labour's proposal - but insisting it was not a deal.

He won overwhelming support from his MPs, his recognition factor with the public increased marginally and he may even have won new admirers for his tough action.

But, at the end of the day, he succeeded mainly in making himself look silly and in ensuring that Labour's proposals will go ahead much faster than originally planned.

The Queen's Speech
Labour had been ready to dig in for a lengthy campaign of guerrilla warfare over their proposals and had deliberately left pieces of legislation out of the Queen's Speech to ensure they had room for manoeuvre.

Once it was clear they had massively outflanked Mr Hague, those pieces of legislation were revived.

A small number of herediaries will remain under the Cranborne deal
The Bill to abolish the hereditaries' rights to sit and vote in the Lords will now be published early in the New Year.

It will be accompanied by a white paper setting out plans for a Royal Commission investigation into the best way of reforming the Lords.

In "stage one", a tenth of the hereditaries will remain before the real reforms are done some time later after the commission reports.

But, instead of an 18 month battle or more, the determination of the Tory peers to go out in a dignified manner by accepting the government deal will ensure it could be done and dusted by the summer.

That just leaves the question of the timing of the commission. The Tories greatest fear is that the government may well let stage one drag on indefinitely, ensuring there is no real reform but already having abolished the Lords' inbuilt Tory majority.

Despite the Tory Lords' agreement, the battle is still set to be riveting as all the usual argument for and against reform - and which sort - are trotted out again.

There's nothing new in attempts to reform the Lords. The last was only 30 years ago but was finally talked out on the floor of the Commons.

William Hague's faltering strategy has given Lords reform an easier run than expected
It is a notoriously difficult area for reform, with powerful arguments on all sides. Those in favour of the status quo claim Peers have persistently proved their willingness to buck all governments, including Tory ones.

Opponents insist the upper house is an undemocratic anachronism - but are split on how to reform it. An entirely elected second chamber could rival the Commons whereas appointed peers would be seen as cronies of whichever side appointed them.

Some sort of mixture seems the most likely outcome - and even some hereditaries seem certain to survive after being transformed into life peers.

But for the first time in decades it now looks highly likely that the House of Lords we have all grown to know and love - or loath - is finally for the chop.

See also:

03 Dec 98 | UK Politics
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