Parliament - The Sketch: Lord Chancellor takes a trip with Alice to Wonderland

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The Independent Online
WHENEVER THE irrationality of debate in the House of Commons threatens to become injurious to the health it is a useful restorative to wander down the corridor to the Lords, a chamber so eccentric in its operations and so irrelevant in its pomp that, by a kind of trick of the light, it makes the other place appear a model of intellectual rigour.

You would have thought this tonic effect might have been diminished by the Labour Party's announcement that it is to reform their lordships, but if yesterday's debate on the Weatherill amendment is anything to go by, it has only forced the chamber's Alice-in- Wonderland logic into strange and wonderful new formations.

The best evidence of this effect was offered by the Lord Chancellor himself, defending the Government's backing for an amendment that effectively diluted their own manifesto commitment, by allowing 92 hereditary peers to remain. "We know that it is a compromise," he said, "and none the worse for that."

In the dissatisfaction it provoked lay the very proof of its admirable even-handedness. In other words he was pretending to be as unhappy as he dared, so that the Opposition could feel a bit happier. Not too happy, naturally, since its unhappiness was also a reciprocal guarantee of Labour contentment - but not too grumpy either.

Taking the edge off the mood of give and take, he let his frock coat fall open to reveal the shillelagh that would emerge if the sweetener didn't work: the Government expected in return for its concession it would "not be unreasonably impeded". If that wasn't forthcoming it really couldn't guarantee that accidents wouldn't happen.

He then confirmed, as Lord Weatherill had asked him to, that the Government wouldn't rely on the weakened constitutions of hereditary peers to do its own constitutional work for it - if death thinned out the hereditary shrubbery after Stage One reform it would be replanted, until such time as Stage Two was complete. Indeed he went further - those lucky peers who were elected by their hereditary colleagues for that interim period would "therefore have greater authority".

There was a murmur of astonishment at the suggestion that an indefensible anomaly in a modern democratic state becomes a bit less anomalous if he gets some other friendly anomalies to vote for him. It appeared to be a homoeopathic theory of democracy - whereby a massive dilution of the original, so massive that not an atom of democracy remains, nevertheless works with undiminished potency - and it sounded rather promising to Tory lords. Why stop at just 92 reprieved hereditaries ("Now with added moral legitimacy!"). After all, if they all voted for each other enough times perhaps they could finally pump themselves up to a level with the life peers.

Lord Irvine's most peculiar argument, though, was the hint that the amendment was a good thing because it would act as a spur to the Government to press on with the second stage of its reforms. This too seemed to imply an entirely new development in statecraft - the deliberate implementation of flawed legislation so that you are obliged to make good your own mistake as quickly as possible.

It is rather as if a man were to explain the fact that he'd employed a cowboy builder to re-roof his house on the basis that the leaks ensured he wouldn't forget to have it done properly. Even more bizarre was the notion that this argument would appeal to the Opposition, since that party's repeated utterances about pressing on to Stage Two reform are only a debating ploy anyway.

I staggered back down the corridor, giddy with the spiralling absurdity of it all. The Commons will look a saner place today.