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The Sketch: Lord Chancellor takes a 'retrograde step' forward

IN THE House of Lords they were debating the issue of Derry's trousers, after Earl Ferrers (no wig, and broad pinstripe suit) had urged his colleagues not to assent to the Lord Chancellor's shocking suggestion that he should be allowed to come to work in a suit.

Allowing Lord Irvine to join the rest of the peers in the 20th century, or the late 19th if he is to take fashion notes from some of the older members, would be a "retrograde step", he warned. The temporal logic of this wasn't entirely clear at first: had the amendment before the House been suggesting that the Lord Chancellor turn up in slashed doublet and silver filigree codpiece, then you could perhaps understand the phraseology.

But what Earl Ferrers really meant was that his dress was admirably retrograde as it was, and any attempt at forward motion should be impeded. The Lord Chancellor wasn't just another functionary, he argued, he was a constitutional mascot and his proper place was propped in the middle of the Upper Chamber's dashboard.

This is a perfectly respectable argument if you have a fondness for tradition (and for some reason that escapes me, many of the hereditary peers are slavish in their devotion to the principle). What's more it can be neatly turned against Lord Irvine himself. If the Lord Chancellor was "so punctilious" about the historical authenticity of his own apartments, Earl Ferrers pointed out, surely he should be equally respectful of sartorial traditions in the House of Lords? I left the debate as Lord Lester was trying to establish whether the Lord Chancellor's knee-britches and wig represented a "dignified" or an "efficient" element of the constitution, an allusion to Walter Bagehot's famous distinction between the bits that dazzle and the bits that actually do something.

In the Commons, the Prime Minister was making a statement about Iraq and I couldn't help but carry the question over from one chamber to the other. Are such occasions "dignified" or "efficient"? They certainly have their own solemnity when the matter in question is the last-minute averting of military action. But they are also important for the House's notion of its own dignity - the increasingly doubt-nibbled idea that it plays a supreme role in the government of the nation.

MPs like to have the Prime Minister come to the despatch box to tell them what's been going on, even if his presence there is largely ceremonial, because it bolsters their sense of themselves as an invigilating body. And, once he's actually decided to turn up, Mr Blair is good at ministering to their vanities. But yesterday there was a sense that the formal courtesies had a larger purpose; Mr Blair wanted to send a message about British unanimity of purpose, and he got his way.

There were some wistful questions from Tory members, provoked by American hints that they wished to "bolster the opposition" in Iraq, a phrase that clearly conjures fantasies of snipers drawing Saddam moustaches on watermelons in preparation for a bit of firing practice. But the only real opposition Mr Blair faced came from behind him, from where Tony Benn invited him to admit that there was no possibility of getting the UN to agree to the use of force. Mr Blair took this in his stride, but it seemed to rattle Gerald Kaufman, who rose a few minutes later to stutter out a denunciation of those who had visited Iraq to "get their skins tanned and their noses brown".

I don't think this sally was aimed at Mr Benn, who is impeccably pallid, but at George Galloway, a man with the burnished lustre of a television travel journalist and very little time for the threat of force. I don't know whether he's recently visited Baghdad, but if not, he has been doing intensive research work in preparation for the Solarium and Sunbed Operators Regulation Bill.