Suddenly, Mr Hague has a chance to outflank the Prime Minister

By selecting the most radical option, he has a chance, if not to control events, at least to make his mark on them
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YOU WOULDN'T know it, but what happens in the House of Lords over the next few weeks will amount to an event of historic importance, perhaps greater, in strict parliamentary terms, than any which has taken place since the general election. The Lords' debates on the bill to remove the right of hereditary peers to vote, which begin with the bill's second reading today, provide the last chance for those who want to commit the Government to a much more radical second stage of Lords reform than anything Tony Blair has contemplated. It is the one legislative moment, perhaps the only one, ministers genuinely feared when they took office. And it is still probably the one real opportunity open to William Hague in this Parliament to influence the course of history.

For the last few weeks it has looked as though the Government's minimalist intentions for the Lords - removing (most) hereditary voting rights and leaving a doubtless less than fully democratic second stage up to a Royal Commission chaired by that arch-fixer Lord Wakeham - would go through without real trouble. That may still be the case. But it need not be. Something has been stirring, and in an unexpected quarter.

Were it not for war in the Balkans, the fact that 160 MPs had signed an Early Day Motion promoted by the Tory backbencher Andrew Tyrie, the former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, and the former Labour minister Mark Fisher, calling for a democratically elected second chamber, would have attracted a good deal more attention than it has. The signatories include a substantial number of Labour MPs who fear that the Government has little or no intention for a genuinely democratising second stage reform of the Lords.

But the motion is especially interesting for the number of Tory supporters. Of the 101 Tory backbenchers, 39 have already signed, with another dozen saying they would do so if the motion was modified to call for a partly or largely elected second chamber. Six others, including Sir Edward Heath and Eric Forth, have indicated their agreement but say they never sign Early Day Motions. This implies that over half the Tory party in the Commons are ready to take on the Government on the only issue on which, because of its numerical strength in the Lords itself, it actually has the capacity to damage the Government.

All this suggests that in the Commons, at least, Mr Hague will have substantial backing if he seeks to outflank the Government. This is a remarkable shift in Tory opinion, partly attributable to an influential pamphlet in favour of a democratic second chamber published a year ago by Mr Tyrie. The argument of ministers, of course, will be that since a Royal Commission is now underway, there is no need to pre-empt its conclusions. In reality, the composition of the Commission, not to mention its relatively narrow remit, does not suggest that it is preparing to be radical. Certainly neither the chairman, nor the former Cabinet Secretary, two trade union general secretaries, and the ultra-loyalist parliamentarian Gerald Kaufman can be expected to outstrip the Government's minimalist thinking on the Lords' future. It's true that other members, like Lord Hurd and Professor Anthony King, may well take a more independent-minded view; but their chances of persuading other members of the Commission to do so will depend partly on how supine Parliament is in its treatment of the present bill.

Mr Hague, moreover, should have a useful means at his disposal for reversing his apparent acquiescence in the Government's minimalist plans, provided, that is, that the Commission which he himself set up under the former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay reports before the Committee stage in the Lords begins shortly after Easter. Lord Mackay's commission - on which Lord Hurd also sits - should hurry up; because it is chaired by one of the cleverest men to join a postwar Cabinet, it will carry real authority and will provide Mr Hague with his opening. It will probably produce a list of options, which can hardly, given the numbers signing the EDM, fail to include that of a mainly directly elected second chamber. By selecting the most radical option, he has a chance, if not to seize control of events, at least to make his mark on them, perhaps for the first and last time in this Parliament.

It won't be easy. Here, the full extent of Tony Blair's consummate brilliance in negotiating his historic compromise with Lord Cranborne, the now dismissed Tory Leader of the Lords, is only now becoming apparent. First and foremost, the deal has hobbled the opposition in the Lords which the signatories of the EDM are now trying valiantly to assemble. Faced with a clear alternative between simple extinction on the one hand and extinction plus a noble deathbed campaign for a democratically elected Upper House which would have gravely embarrassed the Government on the other, even the most reactionary of the hereditary peers might just have been persuaded to opt for the second.

As it is, of course, they now have a much more seductive alternative, which is to stand for election to the 91 seats allotted to the existing hereditaries. Especially since one of the original proponents of the arrangement, the life peer Lord Weatherill, has made it clear that he would have no objection if it lasted into perpetuity.

Secondly, the deal spectacularly undermined the moral authority of those peers - Lord Cranborne first and foremost among them - who pretended to be constitutional visionaries and modernisers, with no strenuous objection to abolition of the hereditary system provided it could be replaced by a properly modern and democratic second chamber. Their cover has now been blown. They were, after all, interested only in saving their own skins.

Mr Hague's chances of defeating the Government in the Lords must therefore be reckoned at no better, and perhaps quite a lot worse, than 50-50. But in larger terms, by finding a - preferably grand and hereditary - peer to promote the cause of fully democratic reform in the committee stage after Easter, and then backing him, he cannot lose.

If by any chance he wins the day in the Lords, he precipitates a crisis in which the bill is delayed and the Government is forced to invoke the Parliament Act - all because it wants to be less democratic than the Tories, which can only play badly in the country. If he loses, it will be a defeat which Mr Hague can blame on the hereditaries, and in which he has been seen to stand up to his own reactionaries in the way that Neil Kinnock stood up to Militant. But most significant of all, if he doesn't try, he will forfeit the right to criticise whatever Tony Blair eventually decides to do, however minimal, about second stage Lords reform.