The Sketch: Lords game of ping-pong sets the moths a-flutter

RARELY DOES the House of Lords quicken the pulse, but in the narrow passageway that leads into the press gallery, in which journalists wait while prayers are conducted, there was a moth's flutter of excitable cliches yesterday. "Scorched earth," whispered one voice; "Uncharted waters" hissed another. I wondered for a moment whether this was my first encounter with rumour buzzing through the corridors of power, but the pinched aperture in question hardly qualifies for such a grand description and the most powerful person present was probably the clerk. Still, the bathos of the shortfall could be taken as appropriate because this whisper of anticipation had been provoked by the prospect of yet another debate on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, a confrontation which is either Democracy's siege of the Alamo or the last silly indulgence of an indefensible anachronism, depending on your point of view.

THE LORDS have been playing ping-pong with the Commons over an amendment on the closed-list system, and the rally has lasted far longer than it should. At least, most people think they've been playing ping-pong, though Lord Callaghan described it as table tennis and Lord Bethell thought it was another game altogether. "We have carried the ball several hundred yards down the pitch. We can now go for the line or kick for touch," he said, inviting peers to consider the merits of an amendment to the amendment to the amendment. The Lords decided it was simpler to go for the line, sending the Bill back to the Commons once more. It was at this point I realised what the game was - ping-pong played with a rugby ball, an exciting variation that removes the dull predictability of bounce from which the classic game suffers.

IT IS a sport, anyway, which procures some bizarre contortions from both teams. Urging his fellow peers to stand firm on the bastions of local democracy Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish pooh-poohed the Government's latest attempt at compromise, a pledge that there would be a review looking at how closed lists operated. "Talk about crumbs from a rich man's table," he said scornfully. Behind him rich men rhubarbed indignantly at the close-fisted arrogance of them up at the big House, like beaters deprived of an expected tip. On the other side Lord Evans of Parkside decided to try a disguised topspin, pointing out to Conservative peers how devastating it would be for Labour Party electoral fortunes if the Bill went through. Kill it, on the other hand, and the party would be spared the embarrassment of internal division. Almost every Labour backbencher would silently thank them. He clearly wanted to alarm the opposition with the prospect of unintentional fellow-travelling but the issue has already forged some unusual cross-party alliances, and Conservative peers have been relishing the novelty of quoting renegade Labour backbenchers in their cause.

LORD PEYTON of Yeovil confessed to his colleagues that he had recently found himself "in very warm agreement with Mr Tony Benn". He chuckled at the thought of this unlikely turn of events. Lord Callaghan stormed back with a fine speech, attempting to tweak his colleague's sense of shame that an unelected body should overturn the decisions of an elected one. This is a powerful argument, the only powerful one the Government has, but it tends to have little force when aimed at men who think election is a rather vulgar way of entering Parliament. It was batted away by Lord Tebbit. It isn't often that it's hard to tear yourself away from a Parliamentary debate because you want to see who will win the day - but yesterday was one of those rare occasions.