The last thing this Government wants is a democratic Lords

Blair's handling of the Lords testifies to his almost poetic understanding of human frailty
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ONCE AGAIN, the Lords is proving to be the best comedy show in town. If nothing else, it's the ideal New Statesman or Spectator competition: say in less than 75 words why, as a hereditary peer, you want to be elected by your fellow nobles to remain in the Lords. Then their lordships are up in arms to find that the timing of the ennoblement of the new Nato secretary-general, George Robertson, has been cynically adjusted to procure an early by-election in his Hamilton seat. None of this exactly enhances the dignity of the upper house.

The mistake is surely to think that this will greatly bother the Prime Minister. It is fatally to misunderstand his intentions in getting rid of the hereditaries - a hugely popular cause in the Labour Party. But that didn't mean that he minded one spin-off of the hereditaries' presence in the Lords - the fact that they hobbled the upper house's power to act as a check and balance on the executive. As long as the Lords was dominated by hereditary peers, its legitimacy in modern times was in doubt. The brutal, and to most progressive constitutional reformers unpalatable, truth is that he has devoted time and energy to removing the hereditaries without lending any more legitimacy to the Lords. And it has been a good deal more delicate than it has looked.

The first risk he took was with the Tories. It is entirely to William Hague's credit that he set up a commission under Lord Mackay, the brilliant former Lord Chancellor, which in a remarkably short time produced better, more lucid, and more persuasive proposals for a properly democratic upper house than any of the weighty inquiries - at least 32 of them - on the subject since the Bryce report in 1918. Properly, it didn't argue the case for changing the Lords in the first place. It simply took as its starting point the fact that it was going to happen and showed how you could create a democratic senate without infringing the supreme authority of the Commons.

Mackay proposed two alternative structures, one a mixed system providing for a significant minority of directly elected senators (in an admirably symbolic modernisation the members of the upper house would no longer become peers), and the other with 90 per cent directly elected, and 10 per cent appointed by the Prime Minister of the day to be Lords ministers. Ingeniously, Mackay trounced the pervasive argument that a democratic Lords would undermine the primacy of the Commons by proposing rotating elections for six-member constituencies in which no more than two would have mandates as fresh as those of MPs and none, by virtue of their numbers, would have as direct a relationship with their constituents.

The problem was a matter of timing and political will. Had Hague commissioned Mackay much earlier, then overcome the foolish optimism of his own hereditary peers that they could somehow survive the government onslaught en masse, and then wholeheartedly adopted the report as party policy, he could have fought tooth and nail against the Government in the Lords for a democratic second chamber and probably triggering a sizeable Labour revolt against the Government's Bill in the Commons. Instead the Opposition allowed itself to be bought off by a Royal Commission, chaired by Lord Wakeham, which is most unlikely to produce anything remotely as democratic as Mackay.

All the signs are that Wakeham sees his job as producing something which will actually be enacted - and that means acceptable to the executive. And there is little sign that the Government wants any democratic element more threatening than a minority of indirectly elected councillors, Scottish and Welsh parliamentarians, with no fresh mandate for the new upper house, and elected, no doubt, on some cosy buggins-turn mechanism.

So the Prime Minister had some luck. But Blair's supremely skilful handling of the Lords so far - and his probable handling of it in the months to come - also testifies more than anything else he has done to his deep, almost poetic, understanding of human frailty and ambition.

For the second risk was that the hereditary peers would simply, as they had the power to do, plunge the Government's programme into chaos by refusing to accept their own demise and voting against it in the Lords. And this was Blair's masterstroke. By offering almost half the hereditaries who regularly turned up the right to stay, by being elected by their peers, he bought off any risk of such a stand, either from principle or vested interest. The opposition was simply siphoned off as the hereditaries scrambled to be among the chosen. Just for good measure, he threw in a life peerage for the man who had negotiated the deal, Lord Cranborne. The hilarious new 75-word manifesto - a privation to which Cranborne, of course, will not himself have to submit - neatly completes their humiliation.

But Blair's understanding of human frailty does not stop there. For the life peers, and even more important the would-be life peers, are rapidly becoming a vested interest every bit as entrenched as the hereditaries. It is striking, for example, that enthusiasm for an elected second chamber among MPs is in inverse relation to age and length of service; those for whom the possibility of ennoblement is most imminent are, by and large, least troubled by a wholly appointed second chamber. A fair number of those appointed by Blair since the general election are no doubt slightly uncomfortable to be lords and have genuinely agreed to it out of loyal service to their party. But that is not the case for the majority of the life peers in any of the parties. Not for them the relatively clinical title "member of the senate" conceived for them by Lord Mackay. They like being lords, not least at their weekend homes where the rural populace hardly distinguish between the titles of appointed or hereditary peers. They like being able to book the best tables at restaurants or being upgraded for airline bookings. And they like that rather agreeable Western wing of the Palace of Westminster, where the teas are better, the bars more soigne, the armchairs deeper than they are in the other place. And they do not, on the whole, see why they should stand for election. They are certainly not going to agitate for it.

All of which chimes rather well with the Prime Minister's basic instincts. There may be tactical difficulties for him - not least for his relations with the new Liberal Democrat leadership - if, as expected, Wakeham comes up with only minimal and cosmetic, pseudo-democratic, elements for the Lords. But he has got his way so far. And he shows little sign of seeking the lasting monument of a constitutional reform which would provide a newly legitimised check and balance against the government of the day. In that dispiriting context a bit more fun at the expense of the Lords is nothing to worry about.