Parliament: Lords go out, not with a bang or a whimper, but with a mumble

The Sketch

AT LAST it had come. After months of legal argument and abstruse appeals the condemned men were to be led to the place of execution. Would they blubber for clemency at this final hour or would they walk ramrod straight to the scaffold, a stoical smile on their lips?

Before we could find out, there was time for one last legal argument. Lord Stanley of Alderley begged to move that the Prime Minister be required to make sure that at least half of the House of Lords would consist of peers "who have experience of, and expertise in, fields other than (or in addition to) politics". Several peers backed him up - it was the only way to prevent a Tony Crony house, they said. But Lord Strathclyde, speaking for the Conservatives, respectfully concluded that it was time to let go of the bedstead jammed across the cell door. "How many times do you have to flog a dead horse before it rings hollow?" he asked. About as many times as you have to mix a metaphor before it bites the turtle, I suppose.

Easy for him to be courageous, since he'd just been given a reprieve as one of the elected hereditaries. But, to be fair, he spoke for most of the condemned as well - inured to their fate and anxious it should pass off with dignity. Lord Stanley bowed to the mood and withdrew his amendment; he had only been anxious, he explained, that the last words on this matter should not be a history lesson but a reminder that vigilance would be needed in the future.

The condemned men's last words were some way off though - and, contrary to the hopes on both sides of the House, could probably best be summed up as: "What the hell's going on?" True, Baroness Jay of Paddington ended, like a prison chaplain, with bland philosophy. "Change is always a difficult process for those most closely involved," she murmured. Never truer, of course, than when it involves a change from living to dead. And Lord Strathclyde also wanted to strike a note of valedictory pomp. "This House has inflicted no evil," he said proudly, before defying its executioners to rest in their "embarrassment and shame".

But my defining memory will not be of those constrained attempts to rise to the historic occasion but the entirely unforced way in which the House fell beneath it - voting themselves out of existence with a farcical muddle that mixed courtesy, irascibility and incomprehension in equal measure.

It started with Lord Clifford, who rose, he believed, to speak on Amendment Four. Lord Clifford has never been one of the chamber's more popular speakers and a collective groan went up. But the House was only on Amendment Two and Lord Clifford - to everyone's immense relief - was ruled out of order. He sat down, wounded.

The votes passed without division, Lord Boston of Faversham tactfully ignoring the rebellious cries of "Not content!" from Tory hereditaries who had no desire to troop out into the lobbies, but couldn't quite bring themselves to go without a murmur.

Then, in an act of chivalry, Earl Ferrers rose to insist on Lord Clifford's right to speak. This was genuinely noble, and, as in one of those scenes where an ugly mob is touched on its conscience by a lone voice, the House bowed to his mood. They soon regretted their charity - even Earl Ferrers, who barked "Get on with it!" as Lord Clifford mumbled into action.

Soon nobody knew what was going on - not Earl Ferrers, not the Chief Whip, and not the Woolsack either - and those peers that weren't getting cross started to get the giggles. Some may feel this an ignoble epitaph to hundreds of years of tradition, but it struck me as perfectly fitting - the House at its best and its worst, all at the same time.

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