Labour's radical reform package is still surrounded by ambiguities

There are virtually no big hitters in the Government who enthuse about the Jenkins proposals
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The Independent Culture
THE PUBLICATION this week of the White Paper on Lords reform is a historic moment. Almost lost in the recent high theatre provided by Messrs Hague and Cranbourne was the bald fact that, by next autumn, the hereditaries will be stripped of their powers. So much attention has been focused on the means to achieve this end, that the radical nature of the objective has been obscured.

What is more, this week's White Paper will contain pretty clear guidelines for phase two of reform. The paper will demonstrate that the Government has no intention, as the Conservatives claim, of sticking permanently to phase one, in which a House of "Tony's cronies" dances subserviently to the Prime Ministerial tune. The Royal Commission will be asked, for example, to examine ways in which the Government's other constitutional reforms, devolution for Scotland and Wales and, ultimately, for the English regions, can be reflected in a second chamber. It is possible that implementing their recommendations will have begun by the time of the next election. A senior government minister tells me that "this is not a commission which will have the time to travel around the world, studying the workings of second chambers in exotic places".

In the short term the only consequence of ambushes set by the Tories will be long evenings at Westminster for legislators. Proposals banning the voting rights for hereditary peers will reach the statute book this year.

The Government's constitutional reform agenda will move on significantly in a different area over the next few weeks, as well. After the little flurry of excitement following the Mandelson resignation, in which some Cabinet ministers flexed their muscles only to show how tame they were, there has been another development in the ambitious and, for Labour, strategically advantageous relationship with the Lib Dems. The Joint Cabinet Committee is to review foreign policy with a statement from Robin Cook and his good political chum Menzies Campbell, expected as early as March.

I am surprised that this announcement did not get more attention last week, as it showed the degree to which Tony Blair dominates his government. Since Peter Mandelson's departure, there have been several reports suggesting that Blair was under pressure to rethink his relationship with Paddy Ashdown. I can confirm that it is the internal issue which gets some cabinet ministers more worked up than any other. So what does Blair do on week one of his return from holiday? Instead of succumbing to the hostility of the Cabinet, he strengthens the ties in a central area of policy. And do any of the Cabinet members complain? There has not been a whimper. It seems that the mice really do come out to play only when the cat is in Seychelles or Tuscany.

For Robin Cook, his more direct involvement in the Cabinet committee marks a mini-renaissance after the nightmare of his former wife's book. If working with other political parties is one of the areas of politics that is distinctively Blairite, Cook is a genuine believer. In this area he is closer to his leader than he is to Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Jack Straw (although Straw's allies say that he is relaxed about working with the Lib Dems, even if he is opposed to electoral reform). This does not mean that Cook enjoys the same influence on his leader as Brown and, to some extent, Prescott. But it provides him with a perch on which to mount a political recovery in a way that is entirely in tune with Blair.

So those of us who regard Blair's modernising agenda as sensible as well as ambitious, should be cheering from the rooftops this week, shouldn't we? Blair is carrying on regardless of the cowardly ministerial whispers off stage. Cook has survived. This week will sound the death knell of the hereditary peers. Well, up to a point.

The prospects for electoral reform, on which Cook has been consistently passionate, and which is the only means by which this project will be sustained in the longer term, are looking less good than they have done since the death of John Smith in 1994. Even Lord Jenkins is telling friends that the chance of a referendum being held during the next five years is less than 50/50, an accurate calculation, in my view, as a plebiscite on a single currency is likely to be the bigger second-term priority. There are virtually no big hitters in the Government, indeed no hitters of any kind, who enthuse about the Jenkins proposals, even those who support some kind of limited electoral reform.

Lack of clarity about the endgame with the Liberal Democrats is reflected also in the ambiguity with which the Government views the Lords reform. The Upper House, we are told, is in need of fundamental reform. Yet, in the meantime, its recruits are being used extensively in important ministerial positions. Who better to mastermind the Millennium Dome than Lord Falconer? The Government needed some beefing up in Scotland: give Gus Macdonald a peerage and make him a minister. These are two excellent ministers, and Lord Falconer is already earning rave reviews in Whitehall for his approach to the potentially politically disastrous dome. But, in a way, their first-rate performances make matters worse, legitimising the existing Upper House as the Government argues simultaneously that huge amounts of legislative time are required to reform it.

There will also be a confusing conjunction of events in the summer. As the battles to remove the voting rights of hereditary peers peak, the nation will celebrate the latest royal wedding, a glittering endorsement of the hereditary principle. The event may be a little more subdued than previous ceremonies, but only by a small degree. Middle England's favourite tabloid, the Daily Mail, published a special 12-page tribute on the day the engagement was announced, so goodness knows what kind of frenzy its readers will be in by the time of the event itself.

There is an issue here, as even Gladstone realised when Lords reform was a possibility in the mid-1880s. Gladstone wrote to Queen Victoria warning her that "Organic change of this kind may strip and lay bare, and in laying bare, may weaken the foundations of even the throne." More than 100 years later, the organic change will take place as Britain raises its glass to the latest royal couple.

This conflicting theme, and the wider ambiguity of the Government's approach to reform, illustrates how big the challenge is in a country so heavily weighed down by its past. Other governments have tried and failed. By this summer there will have been elections for the Scottish parliament and the Welsh Assembly, as well as European elections held under proportional representation. The images of voters heading for the ballot box and hereditary peers licking their wounds will not be enough to obscure the summer gathering of queens, dukes, princes and princesses. But they will help.