The Sketch: The role of the ruling classes draws irritably to a close

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Indy Politics
LEGISLATIVE AMENDMENTS are not often commended on the grounds of their sheer powers of irritation, but, as their Lordships debated Amendment 21 to the House of Lords Bill that principle was very much to the fore.

Lord Cranborne reminded his colleagues that he'd only negotiated the Weatherill compromise, which guarantees the survival of some hereditary peers, as a goad to the Government to move as quickly as possible to Stage Two of its intended reforms. He had done it, he said, "to try and pour some sand into the government shoe".

Amendment 21 addressed the Conservative fear that, in time, the sand would run out, and the government might decide not to change its shoes at all, having worn them in very nicely in the meantime. It proposed that there would be a by-election on the death of one of the "elected hereditaries" (a phrase that makes sense nowhere in the known universe but the House of Lords) and that all former hereditaries would be entitled to vote. In other words it was a kind of preservative for the Weatherill amendment, an embalming fluid designed to stop bits dropping off.

Lord Cranborne is one of those aristocratic speakers who treat "ums" and "urrs" as gilded swirls and swags, overlaid with such baroque enthusiasm on the underlying framework that it is sometimes difficult to tell exactly what the resulting object is supposed to do. Chip them away, however, and you will usually find a serviceable structure underneath - the amendment, it became clear as he talked, was a test of the Government's good intentions. If they opposed it then members might justifiably suspect that they wanted the hereditary rump to "wither on the vine", leaving them with a purely nominated chamber. The assembled grapes on the Conservative benches, some of them already a little flaccid and wrinkled, looked stern at the notional perfidy of the Government.

Lord Cranborne's metaphor wasn't the only whiff of mortality in the afternoon - hardly surprising really, in a debate which rested so squarely on the prospective death of the speakers.

But even if things didn't happen quite as quickly as Lord Marsh fantasised, with a bout of bubonic plague taking out peers "like skittles", there could be no grounds for complacency. Even now the man with the scythe was up in the gallery, tapping his bony fingers impatiently.

It was all trundling along rather nicely - a bit of procedural pedantry here, a flare of aristocratic aggro there - when the Lord Chancellor made a move to rise. Conservative suspicion, always trembling at the brim despite their protestations of confidence in the Chancellor's good intentions, spilled over the side of the glass. Was this some attempt to cut short debate, since the rules prevent speeches after a Government summing up?

Reassurances were sought and given and the Chancellor continued. He didn't give Lord Strathclyde everything he asked for, but pretty close - assuring him that replacement by by-election after the first session of the next Parliament would be part of the bill. This must have been rather frustrating for Lord Strathclyde - like throwing a stone at a tempting window only to find it had been open all the time. All that expectation and no satisfying crash. But if he felt cheated he hid it well: "We have witnessed an extraordinary event," he said, beaming at this display of sweet reason from the Lord Chancellor. He withdrew his amendment and then, after protests from various peers who hadn't yet had a chance to speak, withdrew the withdrawal. There was a brief sputter of indignation from peers who relish a really protracted session and then, much sooner than anyone could have predicted, the amendment was finally declared dead.