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13 November 1998

Hague can’t afford to miss this trick

Find the heir to the House of Lords and save yourselves, Tessa Keswicktells the Tories

By Tessa Keswick

What on earth is the Conservative Party’s policy on the House of Lords? No one seems to know. Yet here, in light of Labour’s unclear plans for a second chamber, is an unmissable opportunity for Tory mischief-making.

Baroness Jay, interviewed in the NS last week, boldly condemned peers as useless and the House of Lords as anachronistic but, when asked about her alternative to the hopeless hereditaries, she mumbled, she ummed and she aahed. Like the baroness, Labour is enthusiastic in its decision to overthrow the status quo, yet seems stuck on how to proceed following abolition.

Incredibly, William Hague seems just as uncertain about the fate of the Lords. His party has been shocking in its weak response to plans for constitutional reform.

Conservatives admit the voting rights of the hereditaries should go without suggesting anything in their place. Hopelessly apologetic, they do not defend the remarkable record of the democratically anomalous upper house, which over the years has maintained the delicate constitutional balance and carried out its scrutinising role. Half the legislation passing through the Commons receives no scrutiny; virtually the only scrutiny on European legislation is carried out by the prestigious Lords select committee. Recently the peers have stopped the police being awarded the right to raid a house without the express instruction of a magistrate. Equally, they insisted on English students being funded for their fourth year at Scottish universities. This week they are fighting for the open rather than closed list system, enabling the British electorate to vote for an individual rather than for a party in the forthcoming European elections. These are all, curiously enough, issues dear to the hearts of the Labour left.

Yet the Conservatives have retreated behind a screen of whispered speculations and corridor gossip. It is said that Hague has not yet made up his mind about the Lords, and that Archie Norman has. It is said that Lady Young disagrees with Lord Cranborne and that Lord Cranborne disagrees with Lord Kingsland. While these reports rush through the corridors of Westminster, party policy on a constitutional issue stagnates.

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Instead of losing its energy in gossip and hearsay, the Tory party should act – now. The forthcoming battle for the Lords must be the principal item on the political agenda, and the dismantling of the constitution must be treated as an emergency. Hague and his strongest colleagues – Michael Ancram, David Willetts, Oliver Letwin and Liam Fox – will have repeated chances, on TV, radio and in print, to persuade the country that it is disreputable for Labour to dismantle the constitution before knowing what to put in its place.

Following the Queen’s speech, Hague should call for a comprehensive debate on the future of the constitution as a whole, rather than allowing Labour to pick on individual elements. He must put the onus on Labour and its royal commission to come up with a satisfactory alternative to hereditary peers – and to consider the future of the monarchy, electoral reform, the status of referenda, devolution, regional and local government and the honours system. Hague must call for a five-year period of debate, and for the submission of a report after the general election.

Further, he must promote these arguments by using the big battalions: the owners of the press, Black, Murdoch and Rothermere, together with their editors; the historians and constitutionalists like Lords Blake, Dacre and Norton. He must ask for televised public debates around the country to sound out the views of the public. In these debates, Tories must use ridicule and derision to demolish the Labour proposal for the Lords as a quango: how, he should urge people to ask, can a house based on a system of appointment by Downing Street be any more legitimate than arrangements based on the hereditary principle? “Lifers” are always beholden to the people who put them in. In new Labour’s case, nearly all the people recently appointed have given very substantial sums of money to the party. Hague must point out that there is no serious precedent anywhere for a chamber which consists of both appointed and elected persons. He must remind the electorate that Labour sleaze in this area has exceeded anything we have seen in the past.

Finally, Hague must show that should Labour proceed with these opportunistic plans for abolition, the only credible alternative would be a fully elected second chamber whose new powers and responsibilities should be examined in a bipartisan way. Ideally this would be done together with the necessary reform of the House of Commons as part of an overall constitutional settlement. A fully elected house (and reformed House of Commons) would have the merit of being logical, popular, modern and exciting. Supporting such a plan would begin to build a modern image for the Conservative Party.

The government would be reluctant to support an elected second chamber, for fear that it would act as a check on Tony Blair’s plans for Britain. The Conservatives would have caught new Labour between a constitutional rock and an electoral hard place. In gaining the initiative they could begin to act as a real opposition for the first time.

Tessa Keswick is director of the Centre for Policy Studies