A feudal epoch drawing to a close: the Independent year

Lords Abolition
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THE CHEEKY Christmas card from the Tory Opposition in the Lords shows a cartoon of Tony Blair next to a half-demolished Lords building. A workman tells him: "So far so good, Prime Minister. Now what?"

The card was intended to poke fun at Mr Blair's reluctance to spell out his long-term reform plans for the second chamber. Unfortunately, the joke was on the Tories for most of 1998 as Labour's plans to demolish the rights of hereditary peers had a smoother passage than expected.

Cabinet ministers are convinced that the Tory-dominated hereditaries signed their own death warrants, helping Mr Blair to end 900 years of what he called "feudal domination".

Firstly, the Lords threw out on five occasions Labour's plans for a proportional system at European Parliament elections. The Bill will go through in the new year but the rebellion played into Mr Blair's hands by bolstering his case for removing the hereditaries.

The second event was even more dramatic. Viscount Cranborne, the hereditary peer and Tory leader in the Lords, was sensationally sacked by William Hague for secretly carrying on negotiations with Mr Blair about reprieving 91 of the 750 hereditaries until the Government implemented "stage two" of its Lords reforms.

The row provoked an unprecedented split between the Tory Party leadership in the Commons and the party's 470 peers, most of whom backed Lord Cranborne. At the heart of the matter was Mr Hague's desire for his troops to show "zero tolerance" of government legislation, and Lord Cranborne's wish to call off trench warfare in return for saving some of the hereditaries. "Hague wanted us to die in the ditch, but most of us just wanted to lie down and pass away peacefully," recalled one Tory hereditary. Although Mr Hague's aides insist the public admired the "strong leadership" he showed, many Tory MPs and peers believe the fiasco raised new doubts about whether he is the right man to lead the party into the next general election.

Mr Hague's embarrassment may be compounded in the new year, when the Cranborne plan will almost certainly be added to Labour's Bill to scrap the hereditaries' right to sit and vote in the Upper House.

The Tory leader may seek to regain the initiative by outflanking Mr Blair over long-term reform and is believed to be warming to the idea of a fully elected second chamber. Such a move would be opposed by many MPs, since a Lords with more democratic legitimacy would demand greater powers to amend legislation.

Senior Tories are worried that Mr Hague is about to provoke a second toffs' revolt as many Tory life peers would oppose an elected chamber, since they would be out of a job. "It seems Hague is going to make the same mistakes all over again," said one prominent Tory "lifer". "He hasn't consulted us at all, and we are getting very twitchy."

Mr Hague is unrepentant. He is convinced Mr Blair is vulnerable to the charge of wanting a second chamber full of "Tony's cronies". A cabinet committee chaired by Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, has discussed plans for a house in which only a third of the members were directly elected by the voters. Another third could be elected from among members of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies to be set up next year, with the rest appointed from the ranks of the present 500 life peers.

But cabinet sources insist no blueprint has been drawn up. Mr Blair is unlikely to declare Cabinet's hand when a White Paper on "stage two" will be published in the new year to avoid the charge of pre-empting the Royal Commission, which will be set up shortly. It should produce proposals within a year.

Another by-product is that the second stage could happen much quicker than expected. Until the Cranborne affair, Labour had virtually ruled out further reform until the hereditaries had been removed after the next general election.

Mr Blair has told Labour MPs he hopes the reform will be on the statute book before the election, but many MPs and peers remain sceptical. Mr Blair is already anxious to avoid the charge of "constitutional overload".

Despite the dramatic events of this autumn, the pace of Lords reform tends to be rather sedate. The hereditaries' rights were supposed to be abolished under "stage two" of the 1911 Parliament Act, which was billed as a "transitional measure" - just like Labour's forthcoming Bill.