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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 12:32 GMT 13:32 UK
The danger of consensus
House of Lords
New Lords at next election
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By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent
It's a sure sign Tony Blair is in trouble when he starts banging on about seeking a consensus or offering MPs free votes.

He has done it over party funding in the wake of revelations about donations from people such as adult-magazine publisher Richard Desmond.
The Derwent hunt
Hunt consensus sought

He did it over plans to ban fox hunting. And now he has done it over Lords reform.

These last two came after five years messing about and, finally, tearing up his original proposals.

To the sceptics, all these attempts to seek consensus and offer free votes appear to have one thing in common.

They are pretty blatant attempts to put off the evil day of actually having to do something over issues the prime minister probably wishes he had never raised in the first place.

Long grass

The huge danger in doing something, of course, is that you inevitably anger one section of voters or another.

So it is understandable that many MPs see the government's embarrassing shambles over Lords reform as just another attempt to kick the whole, inconvenient mess into the longest of long grass.

There has long been a suspicion that the prime minister is running scared of genuine, radical reform of the upper chamber and would be quite happy for the current halfway house arrangement to continue.

It is also known that there are irreconcilable differences within the cabinet over how many appointed Lords, or "Tony cronies" as they have been dubbed, there should be.

It is also quite clear that this is a major climbdown by the government and a particular embarrassment to Lord Irvine.

List of options

However, if the prime minister really wanted to put this reform off indefinitely he probably should have chosen someone else as leader of the House.

Leader of the Commons Robin Cook
Cook urged speed
Because Robin Cook looks pretty determined to get on with this, while making a name for himself as a real reformer into the bargain.

He has already stated that he sees no reason why the new committee cannot come up with a list of options within 90 days.

Most MPs believe it could actually be done within about 90 minutes.

Closer to radicalism

But three months isn't that long a wait if it means final decisions can be taken swiftly and the new Lords can be voted for at the next general election.

There is an inevitable question mark over how easy it will be to find a solution that will be approved by all MPs and Peers from within the final list of options, and that could still lead to significant delays.

But, if it can all be done before the next general election as Mr Cook clearly believes, then most people will probably be satisfied.

One thing does seem certain - there will be more elected peers than the 20% planned by the government.

And this reform could yet produce something far more sweeping than the prime minister has so far proposed and closer to the radicalism many believed was indicated in the 1997 election manifesto.

See also:

14 May 02 | UK Politics
Lords rethink 'not delaying tactic'
14 May 02 | UK Politics
Q&A: House of Lords shake-up
30 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Lords reform at risk, warn MPs
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