Parliament: PM questions - Blair under attack over Lords reform

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The Independent Online
THE PRIME MINISTER was yesterday accused of "lacking principle" over House of Lords reform when William Hague rejected a deal to keep 100 hereditary peers in exchange for his party's acquiescence in the rest of the Government's "ill-thought-out" changes.

The Tory leader stunned the Commons during question time when he gave details of the deal and publicly condemned it as a "huge climbdown" by the Government.

But while Tony Blair admitted that he was prepared to agree to a two- stage removal of hereditary peers, he sought to embarrass Mr Hague by claiming that the deal had already been agreed by Viscount Cranborne, the Conservative Leader in the Lords.

Mr Blair said: "I take it that you oppose the deal that has been agreed by the Leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords.

"As a result of this, we will indeed remove hereditary peers. We will do it by consensus, stage one and then stage two, so that we can ensure there is room in the legislative programme for other measures as well.

"We are agreed on our side. Your party in the House of Lords is now agreed. What is very clear from this exchange is that you no longer speak for the Conservative Party in the House of Lords."

During a series of rowdy exchanges Mr Hague said that the proposal did not satisfy even the one principle the Prime Minister had said that he favoured - removal of the hereditary peers.

Mr Hague said: "Ours was no reform without knowing where it is going. Labour's was, until today, the removal of the hereditary peers. Does this not demonstrate you never had any principle on this matter at all?"

The Prime Minister said that Mr Hague's response demonstrated that even when hereditary Conservative peers in the House of Lords were prepared to agree change, he was not.

"What is clear is that nowadays with the Conservative Party, even when one speaks to the Leader in the Lords, one can't be sure the Leader of the Conservative Party here is of the same mind."

In reply, Mr Hague said that it was "beyond the Prime Minister's comprehension how any politician can stand on a principle and stand firm in their beliefs.

"What we know is that you intend to turn the House of Lords into a House of Cronies. You are now ready to indulge in any horse trading to get to that end. I stand on the principle that you don't blunder with the constitution until you know where you are going."

To Labour laughter, Mr Blair responded: "I cannot prevent you engaging in what is a kamikaze mission on your side.

"All I can say is that even your cronies in the House of Lords agree with me that it is better to try to get this reform through. If we can manage to get the reform through with the minimum of difficulty that is in the interests of the country."

Earlier Mr Hague repeatedly made clear that while he welcomed "this huge climbdown", the Tories were not prepared to acquiesce in that change because they were not prepared to join forces with Mr Blair on major constitutional change that was based on "no comprehensive plan or principle." Recalling Mr Blair's promise in the Queen's Speech debate to deliver on the party's pledge to remove hereditary peers from the Lords, he said: "Now you are proposing to keep hereditary peers in a stage one reform. Where does that leave your principles now?

"Let me make it clear that we believe it is wrong to embark on fundamental change to the Parliament of this country without any idea of where it is leading. We said before and say now: no stage one reform without stage two.

"Doesn't your total lack of principle and horse trading confirm that it is just common sense to put that reform on hold and await the report of the Royal Commission?"

But Mr Blair replied: "No. What is common sense is to get this thing done with as little fuss and as easily as possible, which we can now do.

"What is fascinating is that you are now disowning the agreement entered into by the Leader of the Conservative Party in the Lords. You may want to be in that position but I doubt very much that your party wants to be.

"All this indicates that when you are actually provided with the means of getting reform through you are more interested in playing games about the House of Lords than getting it done."