It looks like the beginning of the end for Mr Hague

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The Independent Online
IN MARCH 1957 Lord Cranborne's grandfather, the fifth Marquess of Salisbury, resigned from the Conservative government because of the release of Archbishop Makarios from prison. He was Lord President in Harold Macmillan's cabinet and had, indeed, been perhaps the major influence in having him made prime minister in January. Commentators predicted the imminent collapse of the administration and the displacement of Macmillan as the price he would have to pay for accepting so readily the resignation of so powerful a personage.

To the new prime minister, however, the departure of Salisbury amounted to the removal of "a very tiresome and inconvenient colleague". Macmillan had been much patronised before the war by assorted Cecils and Cavendishes - Tory grandees when the word retained some meaning. He never forgot it. As far as he was concerned, it was good riddance. He carried on as if nothing had happened and won the 1959 election handsomely. Though he found himself in difficulties with his party a few years afterwards, they had nothing to do with Salisbury. He confined his activities to making a nuisance of himself over Rhodesia and, in his one famous saying, describing Iain Macleod as "too clever by half".

It is worth remembering this episode of 40-odd years ago not so much because history repeats itself as because it often does nothing of the kind. The most recent episode involving a prime minister and a Cecil may turn out to be an illustration of the latter.

The Conservatives have already had their social revolution or peasants' revolt. They did not have it when Macmillan ignored Salisbury's resignation (for that was merely the upper and upper-middle classes playing games of their own) but when Edward Heath succeeded Lord Home and Margaret Thatcher succeeded Heath. From the Expulsion of the Wets and subsequent developments the revolution was complete. Only William Whitelaw remained to remind us occasionally of more spacious times. He, by the way, is a hereditary peer of first creation, the others, apart from the royals, being Lords Aldington, Eccles and Erroll, former Conservative ministers all.

Nor is William Hague a Harold Macmillan, or Lord Cranborne a fifth Lord Salisbury, even though he will become the seventh when his father dies. Why, you may ask, is he sitting in the House of Lords at all? I will try to explain it as best I can. From 1979 to 1987 he sat for Dorset South, his home patch, as Viscount Cranborne, his courtesy title. He was more or less on the Tory left except over Northern Ireland, where he was a staunch Unionist. He had never hit it off with Lady Thatcher, became bored and left the House to devote himself to his somewhat mysterious business interests. He did, however, possess a rapport with Mr John Major. In 1992 he re-entered politics as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Defence.

He did not come back as an MP but as a member of the Lords by means of an arcane device called a Writ in Acceleration, which enabled him to sit in the upper House while his father was still alive. The reference books say he was "summoned" to the Lords as Baron Cecil of Essendon in the County of Rutland. Why, in that case, he is known not as Lord Cecil but still by his old courtesy title I am afraid I cannot tell you. It is not really my subject. Lords and ladies are not my line. I am sorry, but there it is.

As Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the Lords, to which he was promoted in 1994, he proved invaluable to Mr Major, perhaps the most competent member of a government not conspicuous for this quality. He saved it from the great spam-fritter disaster of the D-Day festivities of 1994. A year later he lived up to the motto of the feared SDS (or spin doctors' society): "Who gets to the mike first, wins." When Mr Major put himself up for re-election as leader, Lord Cranborne organised a procession of ministers to the microphones and the cameras, all saying that the prime minister had won a staggering victory. This immediately became - as, by and large, it still is - accepted as the true history, even though Mr Major had failed to win the support of a third of his party.

Lord Cranborne certainly has an engaging manner, and knows a fair amount of political history. To me, at any rate, he looks less like an English patrician than a Welsh rugby centre of the 1960s with a taste for the odd drink. He has numerous friends and acquaintances in Westminster and clubland alike. Indeed, when the news of his dismissal came through, the first words a friend uttered to me were: "Ha, ha, this puts old Bruce in an awful dilemma." He was referring to the distinguished political columnist of the Spectator, Mr Bruce Anderson, whose admiration for Mr Hague - or for anyone else who happens to be leading the Conservative Party at any given moment - is exceeded only by his devotion to Lord Cranborne.

Mr Anderson and I were, as it happened, both members of a panel of political journalists who had been responsible for the award to Mr Hague only a week previously of Parliamentarian of the Year. It is not, I think, a breach of confidence (and if it is it cannot be helped) to say that some of us were a little uneasy about the nomination on the reasoning: if he's so good, why is it so bad? We were reminded that we were not judging political effectiveness so much as parliamentary accomplishment.

Mr Hague was to demonstrate the latter in the week in which he accepted his award, in the debate on the Queen's Speech, the most difficult occasion for a leader of the opposition in the entire parliamentary calendar. A week later, on another occasion when he normally shines, he brought humiliation upon himself and handed Mr Tony Blair an undeserved victory.

Mr Blair as a politician resembles Mr George Carman as an advocate: if there is any luck going, it goes to him. But it was not entirely luck either. Mr Hague threw a punch expecting it to be a knockout, but it was a glancing blow. On the government side it was virtually only Mr Tony Benn who was exercised by the Cranborne-Irvine pact for the retention of 91 hereditary peers elected by themselves. But in delivering his glancing blow Mr Hague dropped his guard, neglected his own defence, and was himself knocked out instead.

There has been much mocking of Mr Blair for not knowing his own mind, on the Lords as on other matters. But reform in two separate stages is clearly set out in the manifesto. Mr Blair has departed from it in only two respects: in not getting rid of the hereditary peers immediately, so wasting 18 months, and in entrusting the second stage to a royal commission rather than a joint committee of both Houses.

Mr Hague, by contrast, has not known what to do about the Lords. He is in a muddle. An elected second chamber with greater powers would be both radical and different from anything Mr Blair might contemplate. But no: he has simply wanted them to oppose. They are not prepared to do this. For him it is, I think, the beginning of the end. He is just not up to it, any more than poor Mr Major was. His profitless sacking of Cranborne - whose policy is to be continued by his successor on his own insistence - is not the same as Macmillan's accepting the resignation of Salisbury. For Mr Hague there is trouble ahead.