These chosen peers could create a House of cards

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Prime Minister is said to be an admirer of P G Wodehouse, though there is no evidence that the great writer has influenced his style. It has certainly not influenced his speechwriters'. In his reading, Mr Tony Blair may, however, have come across the story Ukridge's Accident Syndicate. It is about the time, long ago, when our newspapers were offering accident insurance to those of their readers who took out regular subscriptions.

Ukridge conceived the idea that his little group of impecunious young- men-about-London would take out subscriptions to numerous papers (he, as the originator of the scheme, would naturally be exempt from any contribution). They would later hold a dinner and draw lots. The person who drew the short straw would then go off and have an accident. They would proceed to share the money from his insurance.

All went well until the one who was supposed to have the accident, an aspiring actor called Teddy Weeks, refused to oblige. What he wanted, he said, was the dinner, not the accident. Leaving the restaurant he does have an accident - a genuine accident - and the story moves on. For the moment I want to concentrate on his initial refusal.

The Labour peers recently appointed by Mr Blair find themselves in much the same position as Wodehouse's Teddy Weeks. He did not want to have the accident; and there was nothing Ukridge and his chums could do to compel him to have one. The new Labour peers may not always want to support the Government in the Lords or even to turn up there as often as the Whips would like; and there is nothing Mr Blair and his chums can do to compel them to follow their wishes.

This is the truth about life peers which has existed ever since their creation in 1958. Certainly they are an important part of the culture of patronage under which this country has been governed since the beginning of the 18th century. A promise of a peerage may be dangled in front of an MP as an inducement to good behaviour or a Mr Moneybags as an encouragement to contribute to party funds.

But once the promise is kept, the promisee safely in the Lords, the corruption is not important. The new peer can speak or vote as he or she pleases. Foreign trips and perks of that kind distributed by the Whips to their deserving charges have never possessed the importance in the Lords which they have assumed in the Commons. And ministerial posts are limited - though it is extraordinary that a certain number of offices still have to be filled statutorily by members of the Lords.

The patronage consists in the power of the prime minister to make people peers. I remain sceptical about whether it will ever be succeeded by an appointments committee, as the Wakeham commission recommended, or even shared with such a body - or about whether an appointments committee would be either independent of No 10 or an improvement on it. The interim House may last for ever. But somehow I do not think it will. The reason, paradoxically, is that it will become too virtuous for its own good. It will become too independent. This is what it has been since the expulsion of most of the hereditary peers and the boasting by Lady Jay and others that we now have a more legitimate chamber. It is precisely what I predicted would happen many months ago, but no one took much notice at the time.

The result is that the Government is, as the lawyers say, estopped. Ministers do not know what rhetoric to adopt in the face of a recalcitrant House. The old Labour rhetoric was simple enough. The language had done good service over the years. It could be taken out of the cupboard, dusted down and put to use as the occasion seemed to demand. It was to the effect that the Lords were largely hereditary, almost entirely Tory. The rhetoric was seen in its fullest glory - like the last appearance of Dame Nellie Melba - on the Question Time in which Mr Blair mendaciously claimed that the hereditary peers had thrown out the bill to abolish fox-hunting and, with equal mendacity, that he had voted for it in the House of Commons.

Mr Blair has now created a new House. It may contain 92 survivors, with a little-noticed provision for re-election to their number. It may contain a few additional survivors too. For five hereditary Labour peers, and two hereditary Liberal Democrats, were announced as life peers last week. Even so, the new House is Mr Blair's creation. How can he now turn round and denounce it when it behaves in ways which are not agreeable to him?

He has two courses. One is to change the Parliament Acts, cutting down the delaying power which they give the Lords from the present 13 months. The other is to import more democracy into the House than he had originally intended.

The reason for taking the second course is that in democracy lies political control. The prospect of having to undergo re-election, whether at the same time as the Commons or on some other date, makes members of the Lords more amenable to party discipline. At the same time, however, election also makes them even more legitimate than the present lot. But in politics, as Mr Blair should know, clear choices are rare.

The recent additions have received an undeservedly bad press. Admittedly the case of Mr Michael Ashcroft is a scandal. It is not that he is apparently keeping the Conservative Party afloat virtually single-handed, for if I were to enumerate all those Labour benefactors whom Mr Blair has rewarded with peerages, I should take up the rest of this column. The scandal is that the members of the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee, Lord Thomson, Lady Dean and Lord Hurd, have allowed his peerage to be announced on condition he changes his way of life. As well announce that little Johnny is now qualified to be a doctor provided he passes the necessary exams!

Some of the other appointments are more interesting. Professor Kenneth Morgan is the laureate of Old Labour and is, moreover, a friend of mine. I cannot see him voting obediently on such matters as child benefit or disability allowance. Mr Tony Greaves is a traditional Liberal with a beard and a woolly hat. He is not exactly a friend but more a good acquaintance from whose business in Colne, Lancashire, I buy many of my second-hand books on political history. Mrs Janet Cohen I once met on the Terrace of the Commons with Mr Murdo Maclean, the secretary to the Chief Whip (otherwise known as "the usual channels"), but I do not suppose she remembers. She writes serviceable detective stories under the name Janet Neel with which I sometimes console myself when I have had enough of Mr Greaves's books.

These three people are independent and gifted. I do not know what assurances, if any, Professor Morgan and Mrs Cohen have given Mr Blair about their attendance at the House or their loyalty in the votes. But they both have full-time occupations which I cannot see them relinquishing. It would be a pity if they did. Mr Blair seems to have made Labour's Lords problem even more intractable, which is no bad thing.