The Sketch: Lords enjoy taste of victory as defeat rounds the corner

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The Independent Online
"THE DEATH rattle of the ancien regime," was how Lord McNally described it; "an unprecedented humiliation for the Government," were Lord Strathclyde's words; but both men were grinning as they uttered these grave and extravagant words, infected by the general air of festivity that filled the House of Lords as Conservative peers argued for a reasoned amendment to the European Elections Bill.

When a Conservative whip finally picked up a piece of paper from the clerks, and the Government defeat was announced, both sides waved and cheered as if everyone had won.

And, in a sense, everybody had. The hereditary Lords had got their deal and the appearance of a principled consistency (never mind, for the moment the myriad inconsistencies of their case) while the Labour Party finally had a workable deadline for passing the bill (never mind the fact that not a single moral argument had been advanced for the closed party list).

"Madame Speaker, I am sure, will do her duty," said Baroness Jay, smiling benignly at the plump young man who had just beamingly insisted that the power of the Parliament Act could only be invoked with "shame and no shred of pride". I suppose if you serve a government with a Commons' majority as unassailable as Labour's it must be quite fun to be beaten now and then.

Earlier Lord Selsdon, bringing up the rear for the Conservatives, had offered this ambiguous tribute to the reputation of the House. "I've noticed," he said, "that the further one goes away from Westminster in a southerly and easterly direction, the greater respect there is for our political institutions."

I don't think he had Reigate and Deptford in mind when he said this - he was much further afield, in the struggling democracies of the Ukraine and ... well ... Italy, I presume. And I don't think he intended his remark to be quite as double-edged as it emerged.

But you couldn't help thinking that proximity is a very potent weedkiller for any blooming sense of reverence for the operations of the House of Lords. Distance lends a charm to many prospects and it must perform the same kind of magic for the upper chamber, that bizarre confection of genealogical accidents (a closed list of one, as Lord Williams of Mostyn pointed out) and rewarded loyalties (all of them beneficiaries of the much reviled party machine).

Up close, though, you can see what a game it all is, one in which some of the less experienced participants even find it difficult to keep a straight face. Lord Strathclyde didn't quite giggle at the despatch box, but it wouldn't have been very surprising if he had.

It would by churlish not to admit that there isn't something catching about all this. The other day, in his recently acquired office, Lord Strathclyde unveiled the Conservative plan for one last stamp of the foot, with a rather touching sense of mischievous pleasure. By his side Lord Mackay of Ardbrechnish looked on, the consigliere to the new young Don. Here was a man who had "made his bones", as the saying goes, but who was doomed by birth and perhaps intelligence, never to be a "made man" himself.

But he too had a little smile of relish as he went through the motions for the sixth and final time. The victory was no victory at all - the defeat of an opponent which had decided that the best way to win the war was a strategic retreat. And perhaps it was a death rattle after all, in which case you can only say that the toffs know how to go down in style.