Leading article: An uncommon row that highlights Mr Hague's failings

AT THREE minutes past three on Wednesday afternoon, Tony Blair was surprised and on the defensive, the massed benches of New Labour behind him silent and disbelieving at the betrayal of the core manifesto promise to expel the hereditary peers from parliament.

Five minutes later, however, roles were reversed, as it became clear that William Hague was rejecting the deal negotiated by the Conservative leader in the House of Lords. As theatre, it was gripping, although it took a little longer to work out that it was Mr Hague who was the principal loser from the exchange. It was not until he failed to find an alternative leader of the Tories in the Lords who agreed with him that he began to look seriously foolish.

He then had to explain why he had sacked Lord Cranborne and replaced him with Lord Strathclyde, who also supports the Cranborne-Blair deal. So the House of Lords will vote for the compromise, in which the numbers of hereditaries will be cut by nine-tenths, and Mr Hague will be powerless to stop it. Which means, in turn, that the Tory leader has managed to engineer a split between the Tories in the Commons and the Lords by being more forceful in defence of the hereditaries than they themselves.

Mr Hague is now in a very difficult position. Although the instant commentaries held that his leadership is not in question, the truth is that, of course, it is. In many ways, this is unfair: Mr Hague is a superb performer in the Commons: bright, quick-witted and with a deadly sense of humour; a combination of Harold Wilson and John Smith.

To no avail, however. The non-political majority of the electorate simply have no time for him. He fails utterly to "come across" on television, which is as serious a failing as anything else in modern politics. This is especially apparent by contrast with Mr Blair, whose success as a mass communicator eclipses almost all else. More than that, though, Mr Hague now appears incompetent: to lose so many of his Lords frontbenchers emphasises that. His judgement on Lords reform has been wrong throughout, saved only by the Government's stubborn defence of the closed-list system of proportional representation. It is hard now to see how he can last until the next election.

But Mr Blair is fortunate that Mr Hague's ignominy has eclipsed his own less-than-edifying backstairs dealings. There is a good argument for cutting the deal with Lord Cranborne, which is that it will short-cut months of constitutional trench warfare - trench ping-pong, at least. If that will unblock the log jam of the legislative programme, it might allow the Government to get through all sorts of Bills it should never have left out of the Queen's Speech, such as on Freedom of Information, a Food Standards Agency and a national rail authority.

But the deal contradicts Mr Blair's presentation of himself as a straight arrow. In public, he described the survival of the hereditaries as "a democratic monstrosity", while in private he was hatching a plot to keep some of them. This is not "saying what we mean and meaning what we say" because, while this deal might make eventual abolition easier, we doubt it will make it quicker. Margaret Jay said the deal meant "we'll probably get them all out by the time of the general election". Neither Labour's manifesto nor last week's Queen's Speech said anything about "probably".

Now that Mr Blair's two-stage reform of the Lords has developed a stage 1a and a stage 1b, he urgently needs to respond to the charge that he is creating a House of Cronies by spelling out a system by which most life peers would be appointed by an independent body. And he needs to accelerate the Royal Commission so that a system of democratic election of at least half the members of the Upper House can be agreed well before the next election.