A Lordly plot to save their place

Viscount Cranborne, Leader of the House of Lords whose lineage goes back to the time of Elizabeth I, is not going to let New Labour take away his hereditary rights without a fight
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Behind the scenes the provisional wing of the House of Lords has begun to make its preparations. Paramilitary hereditary peers have begun piecing together a sequence of parliamentary plots to block Tony Blair's plan to begin a reform of the unelected chamber of the British parliament if Labour wins the forthcoming general election. Anonymous Tory peers have been reported this week threatening to "amend out of existence" Labour's two-clause Bill to take away the voting rights of hereditary peers.

Speculation centres on the person of Baron Cecil of Essendon. To students of history it will come as no surprise. The noble lord is a Cecil and therefore a member of the most distinguished dynasty in 400 years of British politics. His ancestor William Cecil, a Tudor lawyer, became the closest adviser to Queen Elizabeth I and was created Lord Burghley in gratitude. His son, Robert, succeeded to the post and continued as first minister to James I. Later Cecils included the last of the great Victorian prime ministers, Lord Salisbury. Prime Minister A J Balfour was a relative. And a subsequent Lord Salisbury became the kingmaker in the "magic circle" which used to choose the Tory leader.

Small wonder there was much mockery about John Major's vaunted classless society when four years ago the present Robert Cecil - a former Tory MP who is heir to the Marquess of Salisbury and therefore known by the courtesy title of Viscount Cranborne - was catapulted into the Lords by an arcane "writ of acceleration" to join John Major's government. This event was a joyful anachronism for Tory snobs and pundits of the high Tory historical- mysticism bent. There was much talk of scions of a noble dynasty and a man who carried in his genes the accumulated political skills of the Cecils.

It is a poetic flummery which Cranborne is happy to exploit even in the midst of the latest political intrigue. Today he gives a lecture to the floridly-named right-wing think tank, Politeia. Being a Cecil he is not afraid of the broad historical sweep. "Western Europe, whose culture has dominated the planet for over three centuries, is in danger of going the way of the Caliph, the Moghul and the Ming, and for very similar reasons," he declares in the pamphlet on which the lecture is based.

He is worried about nation states being swallowed up in large flabby supranational groupings that will sap the vital desire to compete on which Western civilisation is based. As with economics, so with constitutions. He believes that the British constitution has evolved by adapting to continuous competing pressures. He therefore rejects Labour's plans for the Lords, on the grounds that written constitutions are bound to be imperfect because they are based on so-called fundamental principles:

"Man is not a perfectible beast," he muses. "Therefore, how can a declaration of first principles itself be the embodiment of perfection - unless it has been drafted by God and not man? If the first principles are faulty, then the mechanical arrangements will be even faultier." Politics, he declares "is not just about rationality, because man is not a wholly rational animal." This is, of course, the essential standpoint of any defender of the hereditary principle.

But there is not in that much of a hint of the parliamentary guerrilla warfare to come. Cranborne is too urbane for that. Publicly he stands by the promise made by Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative chief whip in the House of Lords, who said last month that his party would not block the ending of speaking and voting rights for hereditary peers.

In a letter to Lord Carter, a senior Labour frontbencher, Strathclyde insisted that the Tories would abide by the "Salisbury Convention" - invented by a previous Robert Cecil, Cranborne's grandfather, when he was Tory leader of the Lords during the first Labour government in 1945. This insists the unelected chamber would not stand in the way of a manifesto pledge of a party which had won a general election. "It would be constitutionally wrong for this House to oppose proposals which have been definitely put before the electorate," grandpapa said.

Privately the plotters are planning a detailed campaign of constitutional ambushes to paralyse the first year of a Blair administration. "The Leader of the House cannot possibly sanction people planning that kind of thing," said a Tory party source but others in the House are convinced that Lord Cranborne will turn a benignly-unfocused eye to a group of die-hard Tory "provos" in the guerrilla warfare ahead.

Expect trouble of a protracted, procedural kind from the likes of Baron Denham, the former Tory chief whip in the Lords, a passionate defender of the hereditary system. Then there is the Earl of Onslow, who has already expounded the clever country-house Tory argument that the hereditaries should go, but not to be replaced by a fully-appointed super-quango. And trouble may come too from Lord Mowbray and Stourton, another ex-whip, who possesses England's oldest (13th century) barony.

The Cecils, with their curious mixture of high principle and low tactics, are well-versed in this kind of thing. Their tradition is one of high Torydom, far more concerned with the eternal verities of Church and Crown than transient political fashions. When the two clash the Cecils have a habit of resigning. Cranborne's great-great-grandfather resigned from Disraeli's Cabinet over the second reform bill. His grandfather, Bobbetty Salisbury, resigned twice - under Chamberlain over appeasement and under Macmillan over "coloured" immigration.

But they are cunning tacticians too. Lord Burghley, for 30 years Elizabeth I's most trusted adviser, though a generally moderate man was responsible for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and was one of England's first propagandists, financing scholars to rewrite pre-Reformation English history from a Protestant perspective. His son, who was made the first Viscount Cranborne in 1604, successfully masterminded the transition from the Tudor to the Stuart monarchies following a policy which was anti-Catholic, anti-Spanish and anti-Puritan simultaneously.

The present Cranborne is a highly sophisticated political animal too. After a career as a banker in San Francisco and London he was elected to the Commons the same year as John Major. But on being promoted from the back benches to the first rung of Government he resigned within days in protest at the Anglo-Irish agreement. (Cranborne is a strong Unionist). Margaret Thatcher never forgave him. Yet, some years later later, despite his mildly heretical views about government policy, he was sent prematurely to the Lords by John Major to become a junior defence minister. He later became Leader in the Lords, where he successfully sorted out the mess left behind by the departing Lord Wakeham, who had presided over a series of humiliating government defeats and reversals. From there he masterminded Major's campaign to be re-elected as party leader in 1995.

His writ of acceleration was not uncontroversial. "It brings both houses into disrepute," said Labour's then spokesman on constitutional matters, Graham Allen MP. Cranborne shrugged such criticism off - as he did the tabloid outrage when he received the largest rise in a Cabinet pay-round at a time when nurses pay was being held down and, they pointed out, he stood to inherit pounds 105m.

Imperviousness to popular indignation is, of course, an aristocratic trait. Cranborne is the man who in his younger days, after a good lunch at the Turf Club, put up for membership the Rhodesian Foreign Minister PK Van Der Byl, a racist Boer who had labelled all blacks "savages". And when as an MP he won the lottery to introduce a Private Member's Bill he proposed the reintroduction of the old university seats which had been abolished in 1945.

So, few on the Labour side fail to read between the lines when Cranborne's advisers say that progress in a Labour Bill to remove the rights of hereditary peers "would be slow - everything must go through its full stages".

One Tory peer laughs out loud when it is suggested that Labour would like to get a Referendum Bill through in time to hold referendums in Scotland and Wales by September next year. "Everything is done by agreement in this House. There would have to be a compromise. And we have minimum intervals set out in Standing Order 44 - and there would have to be a vote to suspend it," he says gleefully.

Then there will be all the amendments to consider. There is "an endless permutation" of possibilities, says one Tory. A gloomy Labour official sets out likely Tory lines of attack. "They could do all the sorts of things that we do, you know, inserting requirements for `consultation and evaluation'." Labour used this device themselves to defeat the Government over nursery vouchers earlier this year.

It is not as if the Tories have behaved with utter propriety in the past. In the 1970s, the Tories in the Lords ditched two of the Labour government's Bills (on trade union law and nationalising the aircraft and shipbuilding industries). And despite the Salisbury Convention, the 1974-79 Labour government was defeated 343 times in the Lords. Over the whole period since 1979, the Tory government has only been defeated 231 times.

Labour strategists are now in a huddle as to how all this might be countered or pre-empted. Lord Richard, leader of the Labour peers, wants to give top priority to a Bill to remove the rights of hereditary peers. But other senior Labour figures argue that the Bill to set up referendums on devolution in Scotland and Wales ought to be pushed through first.

There is one Cecil precedent that no one expects Cranborne to respect. "It is the duty of every Englishman, and of every English party," said his great-great-grandfather, the last of the great Victorian prime ministers, "to accept a political defeat cordially." If Labour does win the election they can expect no such magnanimity from the latest Robert Cecil.

Lord Richard has told friends that if the Tory hereditaries indulge in obvious time-wasting and obstruction of the Bill to abolish their rights, it might be worth calling another general election - on the issue of Lords reform. It is not a threat he is likely to carry out, but it says something about Labour's estimation of the calibre of Lord Cranborne's generalship in the coming battle that he is prepared to go so far as to issue it.