On The House Of Lords: How the Tories could outflank Labour

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DISRAELI IS back in fashion. William Hague spent quite a lot of his weekend speech in Harrogate trying to rehabilitate him - and particularly to remind Britain that Dizzy's most famous, and most posthumously overworked, notion of "one nation" was originally a Tory one.

But Disraeli is as Disraeli did. And, in fact, Hague is in danger of ignoring the lessons of one of the great Tory's most stunning electoral coups. The issue is Labour's programme of constitutional reform; and the Tories are at severe risk of missing a historic opportunity.

I mean historic. In 1867, Lord Derby's Tory administration spectacularly trumped the Liberals at Disraeli's instigation by doubling the franchise. The Conservatives won the next election and Disraeli became Prime Minister. He out-radicalled the radicals. Could it happen again?

Last week, the Shadow Cabinet held its first lengthy - a full three hours, according to those who took part - discussion of what to do about Lords reform. It considered a proposal which was repeatedly referred to during the debate as "the Disraeli option". And then, for the time being at least, rejected it.

In this case, the `'Disraeli option'' would have been for the Tories similarly to trump the Blair government by coming up with their own proposals for an elected second chamber. That would have meant unequivocally accepting that the Government was going to abolish hereditary peers - a big admission - but that the party now had a real chance to open serious negotiations about the introduction of an elected second chamber.

This had been proposed in a newspaper article that very week by the backbencher Andrew Tyrie. One attraction was that Labour would have had to negotiate. If ministers were serious about their ambitions for more than an appointed Upper House - the "Superquango" their critics accuse them of planning - then they could hardly refuse the Toy offer of talks, if only to overcome the fiendish complexities of legislating for an elected second chamber. And if ministers were not serious, then they would be exposed. The choice would be seen to be, as Tyrie had put it, between "Labour quangocracy and Tory democracy".

Instead of embracing this strategy, however, the Shadow Cabinet allowed Lord Cranborne, the Tory Leader in the Lords, to continue his present tactics. Anything else, it was feared, would lead to a Tory split.

At first glance, the current plan looks rather similar to what Tyrie was suggesting. In reality it is nothing of the kind. Officially, Lord Cranborne wants the Government to table detailed proposals on an elected Upper House before deciding whether some form of cross-party negotiation would be worthwhile. The private talks he has been holding with Lord Richard - leaked by the Tories - reinforce the impression of co-operation.

Unofficially, though, it looks increasingly as if this is simply a delaying tactic which would give the Tories in the Lords some cover for opposing the abolition of hereditary peers. If the Government did produce its paper, then Lord Cranborne would, after due time, produce his own riposte. And so on, for goodness knows how long.

The problem of this tactic is that the Government will certainly abolish hereditary peers in the next session anyway. The Labour manifesto was carefully worded to ensure it had a mandate to make that change, irrespective of any further move to an elected chamber.

The Salisbury doctrine of limited Lords power - formulated by Lord Cranborne's own ancestors - therefore prevents the Tories from wrecking such a bill. That means, I believe, that Hague has very little to lose by seriously promoting a second stage of reform. Especially as, contrary to conventional wisdom, ministers are more open to the idea of a democratic second chamber than they seem.

Key ministers, including, I suspect, Lord Richard, the Leader of the Lords, and Lord Irvine, who chairs the all-important Cabinet committee on reform, are more seized of the overwhelming desirability of making reform democratic. But they cannot wait for ever, if a bill is to be ready for the next session. They would need, moreover, a bankable assurance, perhaps from Hague himself that the Tories were serious about also wanting real reform.

The risks for Hague of adopting the reformist option are much less than they were in 1867 for Disraeli, who inevitably increased the numbers of Liberal as well as Tory voters by his reform. As for the dangers of a split, the most dangerous opponents appear to be the Tory hereditary peers.

Yet, a public punch-up with his own hereditary peers could be just what Hague needs to sharpen his profile and show that he is the kind of modern, unreactionary leader he was projecting himself as last weekend. There are dangers for Hague in not acting. The Government will be able stick some of the blame on the Tories if change stops at an appointed Upper Chamber. The Tories may seem remarkably unimportant today: but if they went for full reform, they would able to influence events and to do so permanently.

Finally, as a matter of principle it happens to be right. The idea that it is reasonable in a late-20th-century democracy to replace a hereditary- dominated Lords with a bunch of assorted celebs, party hacks and self- serving corporate donors, who can't find the time or energy to face an electorate, cannot be sustained.

The evidence suggests that Hague would like to be a reformist. But to seize this opportunity, he would have to overcome the reactionaries among his own shadow ministers. There is, as it happens, nothing new about that. Who was one of Disraeli's principal Cabinet antagonists at time of the 1867 Act? Why, a certain Lord Cranborne, of course.