Hague's great opportunity: dump the peers and embrace democracy

He will need to stand up to the reactionaries in his shadow cabinet starting with Lord Cranborne
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WILLIAM HAGUE has very few golden opportunities in the current Parliament. But after the two-day House of Lords debate which ended last night, merely the first skirmish in what will be a protracted struggle, it is clear that he has at least one.

This is a paradox. The debate went well for the Government. Margaret Jay is the new Cabinet star, having made a well-nigh impregnable case in favour of abolishing the right of hereditary peers to vote, as a self standing first stage reform. (Some of it was enjoyably understated - like her passing remark that "for obvious reasons" the hereditary peerage did not exactly reflect today's multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Britain.)

She charmed and flattered the hereditary-dominated Lords, even as she pronounced its inexorable death sentence. She surgically exposed the fragility of the reactionary argument that, since it is hard to do everything, it is better to do nothing. She pointedly reminded Lord Cranborne, the Tory leader in the Lords (and as a Cecil, the aristocrat's aristocrat), of his grandfather's doctrine, pronounced immediately after the 1945 election, that Oppositions in the Lords should not set out to wreck bills pledged in the manifesto.

Above all, she made the most eloquent case the peers had yet heard for the correct view that a non-hereditary Upper House, even an appointed one, is objectively better than a hereditary one. In short, while she did not win the war this week, she had easily the better of the argument.

So where is Mr Hague's opportunity? It concerns, of course, the matter of what happens next. On this subject, ministers are much more opaque, although Baroness Jay made a good fist of sounding sincere when she said that the Government's planned Royal Commission on a democratic chamber was much more than a mere delaying tactic.

Even those ministers who do not, in private, actually defend the idea of a permanent appointed second chamber, lay heavy emphasis on the complexities of creating a democratic Upper House. Will it be regionally based, part of the gradual construction of a federal Britain? What will be the electoral system? What proportion will be unelected to preserve the independent crossbench element? Will it contain representatives of institutions such as the CBI, or the TUC, or the universities?

All of these questions are now to be considered by a Royal Commission, the timetable of which will now await the publication of the White Paper on Lords Reform next month.

And they are genuinely big questions. To take one example, the more democratic the Lords is, the more threatened the Commons will feel, because it no longer enjoys a monopoly as an elected British legislature. Nor is it possible to separate the question of the electoral system for the Commons from that of the Lords. Is one to be elected by a "fairer" system than the other?

But, big as they are, as long as the Government rests between the two stages of reform, it will be open to the criticism that it has substituted one undemocratic body, albeit a much more varied and representative one, for another. The Prime Minister's decision to introduce an independent element into the appointments system demonstrates the Government's sensitivity on this issue. But, while that may deal with the jibe about the second chamber being filled with Prime Ministerial cronies, it does little or nothing for the charge that a reformed Upper House would still be a super- quango.

All of which the Tories have been pointing out to anyone who will listen. The problem is that this has, so far, sounded rather hollow from a party still largely showing, at least in the Lords, a solid, if partially concealed preference for the status quo.

And this is where Mr Hague's opportunity comes in. What has become increasingly clear is that the Leader of the Opposition now has a choice. He can bow to those who want what his spokesmen have variously described at times as "a noble fight", or "guerrilla warfare", against the first stage reform of the Commons. If he does so, he will be in clear breach of the so-called Salisbury Convention on Lords opposition to Labour manifesto proposals. (Having gone a round or two in print with the present Lord Cranborne on this subject, I am still a little baffled as to where he personally stands on it.)

But at least as important, and rather more relevant to Hague's electoral fortunes, he will be seen by the press - possibly with the sole exception of the Daily Telegraph - the public, and most of his own younger MPs as defending the indefensible, and then losing.

Alternatively, he can open up the so-called Disraeli Option, and trump the Government with coherent, if not necessarily detailed, proposals of his own, for a democratically elected second chamber. At best, from his point of view, this will seriously embarrass a government determined to proceed at a stately pace; at worst - and those around the Prime Minister are adamant that he will not allow himself to be outflanked - he can make a real contribution, in his party's own interests, to the character and composition of a democratic second chamber. For Hague to do what no leading figure in the Tory party has yet done - least of all, for all his clever talk about wholesale Parliamentary reform, Lord Cranborne - and say unequivocally that he is in favour of an elected second chamber would transform the debate.

The signs are that Hague's instincts are for the latter course. Rather skillfully, he has set up a commission on the Lords' future, headed by, indisputably, one of the cleverest men to take office in a post-war government, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. (As the exact opposite of a hereditary peer, the former Lord Chancellor is an especially apt choice; a railway porter's son, who rose to one of the highest and most ancient offices in all the land.)

And the Commission also contains Lord Hurd, another wise man who has knocked about a bit. All the signs are that this body will offer Hague an escape route from his present predicament, if he chooses to take it.

But he will need courage to stand up to the reactionaries in his Shadow Cabinet, and on the red leather backbenches of the Lords, starting, I would judge, with Lord Cranborne. But that's just the point. Hague precisely needs a struggle with the most reactionary elements in his party to define his leadership.

It was always inane to compare, as some of Hague's acolytes did, the ballot on EMU with Tony Blair's Clause IV. It was nothing of the sort. Clause IV represented the public vanquishing of opponents in the Labour party who clung to the fundamentalist precepts of party doctrine, rather than emerge blinking into the modern world. The campaign left a leader triumphantly able to demonstrate to the country that his party had got real.

No-one outside the introverted world of the Tory peerage defends hereditary principle, any more than those outside the neo-Bennite sect defended nationalising Marks and Spencer. The EMU ballot was not Hague's Clause IV, or anything remotely like it. However, taking on the backwoodsmen in the Lords just might be.