Please applaud the first act of a dazzling Tory pantomime

There are storms ahead for Labour over Lords reform but Tory ineptitude makes the journey less daunting
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EVERY NOW and again the Conservatives put on an entertainment at Westminster that outstrips any competition in London's nearby theatres: "Ladies and Gentlemen, the party which brought you the comic double act of Ken Clarke and John Redwood in last year's leadership contest, the party that forced a sitting prime minister to resign as leader of his party, so that he could be re-elected, now brings you a special Christmas panto starring our latest leader, who sacks a colleague for negotiating a deal which the leader himself supports."

These performances are symptoms of a wider malaise: the politicians who would be less inclined to perform like members of a travelling circus if they were operating in more conducive political circumstances. William Hague has not taken leave of his political senses. Nor had John Major when he remained prime minister, but stood down as party leader. Even Clarke and Redwood were acting rationally. It was the political context that was irrational.

So sure-footed before becoming leader, Hague has been damaged by his party's lack of any coherent direction. Although this latest crisis is not directly related to Europe, there is a clear connection. Major was pilloried for being too flexible and indecisive. Hague has responded by being a "tough" leader. He talks about the "smack of firm leadership", usually when a section of his party is in near-fatal revolt.

Clearly Lord Cranborne demonstrated an arrogance which only a hereditary peer could possess, by undertaking some freelance negotiations over Lords reform. But Hague should not have sacked him without making sure that he could rely on the support of other senior peers. Obviously, such a consideration was secondary to the need for an assertion of leadership. "Discipline" was required.

Strong leadership comes only when a leader is genuinely strong and his party is subservient. As leader of the opposition Tony Blair could do whatever he wanted, because his party would let him. Hague is not in such a privileged position, and the more he pretends to use the "smack of firm leadership" in the coming years, the more his party will delight us with further pantomimes. His current position demands nimble footwork and conciliatory gestures rather than confrontational grandstanding. He needs to be more like Harold Wilson than Margaret Thatcher.

But the malaise is not just to do with tactics. The vacuum in policy has been the other reason why normally shrewd tacticians have so readily scored own goals. Again, this is not the fault entirely of the circus performers. The state of the party has demanded obscurity. Major's "wait and see" policy on the euro was devised to keep his party united, rather than out of any conviction on his part (he would have preferred to have ruled out early entry into the single currency). Clarke and Redwood openly disagreed, and tried to make a virtue out of their collective incoherence.

In this case Hague did not dare to make his mind up on what he really wants to do with the hereditary peers.

Last February Hague made a clever speech on constitutional reform which combined high principle with political cunning. Much of it was clear. He accepted the principle of a London mayor, openly changing the party's policy. In the light of the referendum, he accepted, too, the introduction of a Scottish parliament. Quite rightly he raised the implications for England of such a policy, a genuinely strong card for the Tories. But then he moved on to the House of Lords and started playing a dangerous political game.

He began by hinting that the Conservatives would no longer support hereditary peers:

"The balance of power in society has changed. Conservatives are therefore open to suggestions about how membership of the Lords might be changed, too, and whether the hereditary principle is the right one to employ when choosing members for the House."

So did that mean that Hague was receptive to reform? Well, not exactly, no: "Understanding the value of inheritance and the way families pass down values and duties from one generation to the next, Conservatives are not surprised that hereditary peers, no longer required or able to represent the landed and property interest, nevertheless make a valuable contribution to the provision of this remarkable service."

Hague was trying to be too clever by half. Opposing hereditary peers would have split his party, but appearing to support them wholeheartedly would not exactly make the new Tory leader seem "modern". So he has been functioning on that dangerous terrain where tactics become all that matters.

In such circumstances, political antennae very easily become blunted and Hague has fallen into a trap which both Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair carefully avoided in opposition. Both Kinnock and Blair caused internal conflict over issues that made them more popular - attacking Militant and removing Clause Four. Hague has contrived to be in the bizarre position of defending hereditary peers, while taking on his own hereditary peers in the process.

This is a performance with a sequel and it is one where the Government, too, will face dangers. Its concession takes some of the radical zing out of the phase one reform. This will have a Pythonesque dimension to it, as well: the Abolition of the Hereditary Peers (except for 98 of them) Bill. A historic reform, being carried out incrementally, becomes a little more incremental. Nor do I detect a clear sense of timing. Baroness Jay seemed to suggest in interviews that, now, phase two reform could be implemented this side of the election. Other senior ministers consider this to be unlikely. Whatever the precise arrangements, the phase two reform moves closer into view, and with it come all the old thorny issues.

Ministers predict that the powers of a fully reformed upper chamber will remain as they are. This will not satisfy more ardent reformers who argue that a democratic second chamber should be given more responsibilities. But some Labour MPs will be wary of a chamber acquiring any more legitimacy, even if it gets no more powers.

There are storms ahead for the Government over Lords reform, but Tory ineptitude now makes the journey less daunting. For although there are doubts in government circles about tactics and outcome, the Conservatives have obliged once again by flaunting their own divisions.

With eccentric peers lining up on College Green yesterday afternoon, invoking Wellington and Palmerston to explain their resignations, it has been the Tories' most dazzling performance yet. Messrs Hague and Cranborne should step forward and take a bow.

The writer is political editor of the `New Statesman'