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Monday, 26 June, 2000, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Lord of mischief

Lord Strathclyde, shadow leader of the House of Lords, talks to BBC News Online's Nyta Mann about Lords reform, Michael Ashcroft and making common cause with Labour's left.

Labour peers have endured an infuriating past few weeks.

Long nights and late sittings, supposedly a thing of the past, have become standard in the House of Lords. And to cap it all there is a real possibility the upper house will sit in September - slap bang in the middle of Labour's annual conference.

The reason is the legislative backlog in the second chamber combined with a Lords opposition that sees no reason not to seize any opportunity to make life difficult for the government.

The government's mistakes are now going to mean that the lives of backbenchers in the Lords are going to be made hell.

Lord Strathclyde
"We know they're just bent on making mischief," is how one weary minister in the Lords puts it. "That's what we did in opposition."

"Mischief? Mischief? I take my job very seriously," says Lord Strathclyde, Conservative leader in the Lords, with mock pomposity spoiled only by his guffawing. "Do I look like the kind of person who would indulge in mischief?"

Frustrated Labour peers' tales of hardship include the usual channels - party whips - telling their government counterparts they can safely stand the troops down, only to stage a sudden ambush the minute they have left the building.

The result of such guerrilla tactics is Labour Lords and Ladies kicking their heels in the bars and dining rooms of the Palace of Westminster long after all normal folk, most Tory peers and even MPs in the Commons have gone home.

"Sometimes we have taken advantage where they've made very stupid mistakes and so they get obsessed about not making them," Strathclyde, himself a former Lords chief whip in John Major's day, acknowledges.

"But governments do make mistakes, and Labour are not comfortable or at ease enough with each other and themselves to be able to accept that."

Red-blue blood coalition

Tony Benn: Tory peers take note of what he and his fellow left-wingers rebel against
The government's impregnable majority in the Commons combined with a semi-reformed Lords has also led to an era of strange alliances.

Not just in the Lords, where Labour and Liberal Democrat peers have often found themselves co-ordinating their opposition to government measures with the Tories, but between the Houses.

The Conservative Lords frontbench pays close attention to what the "usual suspects" of the Labour left and other malcontents on the government backbenches do in the Commons.

For their part, off-message Labour MPs go about their rebellions with more than one eye on their knock-on effect on opposition peers when the legislation at issue reaches the Lords.

Hence Strathclyde and his fellow noble Tories take careful note of what the likes of Tony Benn, Diane Abbott and Alan Simpson - Campaign group stalwarts all - are up to. "Absolutely. It's hugely important," he confirms.

There is, he readily concedes, "a delicious irony" in this unofficial 'socialist red-Tory blue blood' rainbow coalition - but absolutely no communication between the two sides.

"Oh no, no, no, because that wouldn't work. It would destroy the fiction that we don't look at them and they don't look at us, because they would really hate to admit it. And, I suppose, so would we."

The unspoken co-ordination has often been on civil libertarian and welfare issues. For Strathclyde, still seeking a redefinition of House of Lords' purpose beyond revising legislation passed by the Commons, this is as it should be.

"I think on the most difficult, controversial issues where there's high public feeling, we should be that extra hurdle the government has to get over, also defending the citizen against over-mighty or dictatorial government because in the House of Commons they can do whatever they want," he says.

"And they do."

'Their lives will be made hell'

The semi-reformed Lords has become a more bolshy second chamber
Currently stacking up for the Lords to deal with before this autumn's Queen's Speech are key pieces of legislation in line for concerted opposition from peers: the Political Parties and Referendums Bill, the Countryside Bill, the Northern Ireland Bill, the Transport Bill (which includes the partial sell-off of air traffic control), and Freedom of Information.

"The government's legislative programme is in a complete mess," Strathclyde declares. "It is a shambles due to the inactivity of the government's business managers allowing ministers to bring forward bills which are badly drafted, where decisions haven't been taken, where so many new amendments have been brought forward at a late stage in the parliamentary process."

Labour peers should blame their own bosses for the disruption they have been suffering: "The government's mistakes are now going to mean that the lives of backbenchers in the Lords are going to be made hell. And it means we'll have to come back in September when the Commons is still swanning off on holiday."

"It also clashes with the Labour party conference so they're a bit upset about that," he adds. "But that's their problem."

Even then, Strathclyde's prediction is that two flagship pieces of government legislation, the Political Parties and Referendums Bill, and Freedom of Information, are the prime candidates to be dropped before the end of the session this autumn.

'Bloody silly' reforms

Michael Ashcroft: The UN ambassador to Belize was nominated for a peerage by William Hague
But the government's most serious error, according to Strathclyde, was an expectation that removing most of the hereditary peerage would leave a more compliant upper house.

"They genuinely believed that the political act of removing the most independent part of the Parliament would make it easier for them and that the Lords would sit back and say 'Yup, that's fine - next!'"

Instead the result is a more bolshy second chamber in which remaining Tory hereditaries feel free to taunt the government that they now enjoy greater democratic legitimacy.

The government's headache in the upper house may make it move quicker to the second stage of reforming the Lords than might otherwise have been the case. Strathclyde is not so sure, believing New Labour caught in a trap of its own making.

"It's very difficult to think of a reform which will make it better for them," he says. "The only way you can go is for more democracy. But the democracy which is so far being offered is not more democracy, it's bloody silly. So I think they will steer clear of it."

I think he will continue in his role as Treasurer of the party but he will just come and sit on the backbenches. I don't think he will be looking for a front bench role

Lord Strathclyde on Michael Ashcroft
He forecasts the government sticking at "stage one" reform - the current Lords - despite its pledges to do more. "I think it's increasingly unlikely the government will do anything. If they do do something it will be minimal, and the minimal reform is the worst."

The Conservatives have called for a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament to be set up before the summer recess to consider stage two - but Strathclyde has no expectation the government will do any such thing.

No job for Ashcroft

A number of political observers have unfavourably contrasted the Tories' Commons frontbench with their team in the Lords; the latter, it has been said, is of higher quality than the former.

"I couldn't possibly comment," insists Strathclyde. "I refuse to comment and I don't believe that's true. They have a very difficult job to do in the Commons and they're excellent."

Joining him soon in the Lords will be Michael Ashcroft, the controversial millionaire Tory treasurer and UN ambassador to Belize, ennobled only on condition he change the off-shore status of his residence.

At the mention of his name, Strathclyde laughs. "I think he will continue in his role as Treasurer of the party but he will just come and sit on the backbenches. I don't think he will be looking for a front bench role," he says.

"The front bench is not for everybody. Quite a lot of people want to do it, very few are good at it."

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See also:

31 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Peerage row stokes reform calls
31 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Anger over Ashcroft peerage
20 Jan 00 | UK Politics
Tories fear 'House of cronies'
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