It's a dangerous sport, fencing without a mask

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YOU WOULD need a heart of stone not to laugh at the peers' rebellion. Lord Longforgan, an old friend of mine, put it well when we met up at his club, Pinks, last night, just an hour before the vote. He has not been in London since 1958 and was full of excitement about his journey by sleeper to vote for a referendum. And if it brought down John Major, well, too bad.

'I must say I'm rather enjoying being a chappie of the people. Even the beatniks are on our side.' He had been confused by a vendor selling the Big Issue - which, given recent press coverage, he had naturally taken as referring to the Maastricht treaty.

His Lordship explained the case for a referendum thus: 'Even from my remote Perthshire fastness, I have always been a firm upholder of Parliament, all-powerful, freely voted-for. But if Maastricht passes, the Commons will no longer be the unchallenged source of power and legitimacy in this nation. That's why we must show the elected chaps what's what.'

I asked: 'So the only way to bolster respect for the Commons was for the Peers to thumb their noses at it?' Lord Longforgan nodded: 'Absolutely. Quite right. Now, my second purpose is to protect the people - the little people, ghillies, war veterans, lamplighters and so forth. They, poor dears, absolutely rely on parliamentary democracy. The vote] Foundation of freedom. Lloyd George. Winnie. Sole source of legitimacy, what?'

'Sole source?'

'Sole source. The dear Queen, too, of course. Saw her earlier on. Tremendous form, super speech.'

'No, no, that was Margaret Thatcher. Now let me get this right: you unelected aristocrats are here in support of an unorthodox constitutional strategy, a referendum, in order to re- establish the primacy of Parliamentary elections. These elections, last time, produced a majority of pro- Maastricht MPs who have undermined their own House, the Commons - which it is therefore necessary to defy?' Longforgan rolled a rheumy eye. 'Hmm. What about a show? I gather T S Eliot has written a rather jolly musical.'

Well it's over now. I would have delighted in a referendum, on any terms. But the humbug and confusion surrounding the lords' vote has been too much. Apart from the rebel peers' position, recall that almost everyone is in favour of reforming or abolishing the Government's persecutors in the House of Lords - except the Government. Talk about kissing the rod.

The lords, anyway, have been a giant red herring dragged across this story. The revolt of the barons was never John Major's next problem. At a basic level, they lack legitimacy to destroy an elected prime minister. That can only be done by voters (occasionally) or Tory MPs (once a year).

At first glance, the Commons seems to have turned Mr Major's way, too. There have been high-profile rebellions, close calls, narrow squeaks, rare moments of real drama. But, after the smoke has cleared, we find that virtually all of his controversial legislative programme has passed unamended - aside from Maastricht and VAT on fuel bills, remember the measures on asylum and immigration, coal and rail privatisation, community care, criminal justice, trade unions, social security. Up to now the Government whips have largely succeeded in their aims. Tory rebels have enjoyed their 15 minutes, and more, of high-minded fame. But, thus far, they have failed.

This managerial success for the Government has been buttressed in recent weeks by more successful Commons performances from the Prime Minister. He has been nastier and shallower at Question Time, and that always plays well. His confrontations with John Smith are only slightly above the level of: 'Specky four- eyes . . .' 'No, specky four-eyes to you, fatty]' But, on both sides at Westminster, this sort of stuff now passes for Ciceronian clarity.

So the mood of Tory MPs has been brightening a little. Christchurch, functioning as a political memento mori, may darken it again. But the real question is whether the Government is back in charge of the Westminster game. If it is, then we can expect economic recovery to be followed by political recovery. Tory morale will improve, dissent die down. Even by- election losses won't sting so much.

But I am not convinced the Government has things under control. Winning Commons votes on a small, disloyal majority is a little like fencing without a protective mask. For most of the time, it is merely an entertaining spectacle, a trial of skill and stamina watched obsessively by the aficionados, but ignored by the rest of the country. But it only takes a lapse of concentration - a flash of blade - and we have a dead body.

It now seems possible, as we report today, that the parliamentary duel could muster a Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory rebel majority against Mr Major, deployed in such a way that he could not then ratify the Maastricht treaty. There is much manoeuvring to come and Mr Major has often survived the ravings of journalistic Cassandras before. But, at the tail end of this session, the fencing is as dangerous as ever.

Lord Longforgan, heading north again, duty done, is not really a fool. He was lured to London by the scent of blood and the thought of participating in great events. He came at roughly the right time, and focused on the right issue. But he came to the wrong House. He could not have been more mistaken about the importance of the Commons. The lords' revolt was essentially a comedy - Ruritanian, slightly offensive, ultimately silly. But next week's footwork in the lower House will be for real.