Magazine article The Spectator

Ermine Skulduggery

Magazine article The Spectator

Ermine Skulduggery

Article excerpt

THE Queen's Speech from the throne of the House of Lords was a gloomy and macabre occasion. It was not so much the New Labour platitudes tripping off the sovereign's tongue. It was not even the priggish solemnity of the peers on the government benches. What made the occasion heartbreaking, for those with an appreciation of the pattern and structure of our national life, was the absence of the 750 hereditary peers who have been eliminated by New Labour.

The greatest names of British history Bolingbroke, Nelson, Montgomery, Lloyd George, Lauderdale, Wellington - have been swept aside. The House of Lords stripped of this magnificent and rich legacy is as alluring as a whisky and soda without the whisky. Corporate lobbyists, over-promoted county councillors, and a new breed of plain women in trouser suits now sit in the benches where dukes used to sit.

Just two dukes - Montrose and Norfolk - have survived the carnage of the last three weeks. The rest of them disdained to stand for election in the shabby contest that resulted from last year's surreptitious deal between Lord Cranborne and Tony Blair. This arrangement, which allowed 92 hereditary peers to retain their seats in the Upper House for a year or two, in exchange for going quietly, has ameliorated the damage. But not by much. Many of the survivors are to all intents and purposes placemen themselves.

Tory party managers deny that anything resembling a fix occurred in the selection of the surviving Conservative peers. But those who failed to make the cut bitterly noted that those favoured by Thomas Strathclyde, the astute Tory leader in the Lords, did remarkably well in the contest. On 27 October, just days before polling closed, Robert Cranborne threw a party at his family seat of Hatfield for the Tory hereditaries. More than 300 rolled up to the wake, which marked the end of 800 years of hereditary rule. The event was, in the words of one guest, `an assertion that the Cecils are still the grand old men of Tory politics'. Others took a less rose-tinted view. 'It was a blatant attempt to influence the result. The timing was an outrage. If it had taken place before any other election, there would have been an outcry,' commented one Tory grandee.

Few peers were returned in the vote without discreet official backing. The Earls of Liverpool and Lindsay both alarmed Tory managers by landing far more votes than expected: they are darkly suspected by opposition whips of running private campaigns of their own. Tory fixers were also surprised by the success of the 76-year-old Lord Mowbray, Segrave and Stourton, who came 41st with 88 votes. His success was partly down to droit du seigneur - the title, which dates back to 1283, is the oldest in England. But Mowbray also enjoyed the support of an influential ally in Bertie Denham, former chief whip in the Lords.

Not much can be proved. As might be expected from an operation overseen by Robert Cranborne and executed by Thomas Strathclyde, there were no fingerprints. The same cannot be said of the crossbenches, where there has been much talk of skulduggery and illegitimate influence. Just as in the Tory elections, there was an approved list. Unlike in the Tory case, someone put the list on paper. No one is quite sure who drew the document up. Viscount Allenby of Megiddo - he came sixth on the crossbench list with an impressive 75 votes - is believed, perhaps wrongly, to have been involved. …

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