Boris begins: “Oh, for heaven’s sake. Look at the state of the world, and the sheer urgency of the issues we should be discussing here in this rare and sacred columnar space. The eurozone continues its slow dance of death, British troops are being killed in Afghanistan, trade union militants are triggering strikes with a minority of their members – and I have to write about the proposed Clegg reform of the House of Lords!
Of all the subjects that crowd my teeming brain, this is not the one that I would normally choose. I could be singing a hymn of praise for my old chum Gove and his brilliant new Gove-levels (and bring back the S-level, while you are at it, Michael). I could have loaded up my surface-to-air batteries and discharged them against the crackpot plan to force the poor people of west London to cope with tens of thousands more eardrum-jangling, kerosene-belching flights into Heathrow.
We could now be discussing Ed Miliband’s hopeless and intellectually dishonest speech about immigration; or how you can cut taxes and raise more money from rich people like Jimmy Carr. I could have given you my theory about the phenomenal success of this new porn novel called Fifty Shades of Grey, and the challenge it poses to us feeble members of the male sex, and the general conclusions we are obliged to draw about the chronic and appalling human interest in bondage, submission and government all round.”
Boris continues: “Any of these themes is potentially more juicy and more relevant to our lives – and yet I have no choice. I must tell you about these blasted reforms of the Lords, because I have just been made aware of some of the details, and the blood runs cold. An absolute disaster impends. It really seems to be the case that the Coalition (actually the Lib Dems) wants to push on with a system of elected “senators” – 300 of them – to replace the present Upper House. These people will apparently draw a full parliamentary salary, they will have all the usual researchers and correspondence units, and they will luxuriate in power for a full and unchallengeable 15-year term! The whole thing will cost about half a billion pounds over five years, according to the Labour peer Lord Lipsey.
It is all completely unnecessary. Somehow, time and custom has produced a House of Lords that works. Their lordships are a vast, gentle and liver-spotted repository of wisdom. When you listen to their debates, it is transparent that they are not sharp-elbowed creatures. They betray no particular anxiety to make their name or to suck up to the whips. They may take the odd power nap and they may not all be in the first flush of youth. But they seem, on the whole, to have the interests of the country at heart”
Boris continues: “The Upper House has soldiers and airmen and scholars and lawyers and scientists and film directors and heaven knows what – many of whom would not dream of seeking election on a party-politicalticket. Week in, week out they beaver away, revising and improving the legislative Horlicks that they get from the Commons; doing nothing much, as the old analysis has it, and doing it rather well.
They have tended for a long time to be more representative of society than the Commons – there are more people from ethnic minorities, there are more women, more disabled people. It is probably true that there are more bishops in the Lords than there are in the population at large, but who cares? There’s nothing like a bishop or two to add a touch of class and restraint to a revising chamber. They still have a few of the less obviously inbred hereditaries, in a gesture not just to the ancient roots of the institution but also to the fundamentally different nature of the Lords. It is crucial to the success of the Upper House that it is somehow at a distance from party-political machines, and above all that it is at one remove from the electorate.
Now the Lib Dems are proposing that voters should have a new type of politico – a “senator” – with his or her own direct mandate and constituency. This will be confusing for the voters, who will be wondering whether they should be writing to their local councillor, their MP, their Euro-MP or their senator; and it will be even worse for the egos of these bozos. Consider for a second who is likely to seek election to the Lords/Senate. People who have never made it to Parliament; people who have been flung out of Parliament; has-beens; never-wozzers; people who can see the opportunity to avenge their rejections by finding an alternative route to power. Once ensconced in the Lords they will remain there for three solid parliamentary terms, swanking, swaggering and using the headed stationery for their shopping lists.
Suddenly, the politically thrusting characters of this country will work out an alternative career structure, a new way of achieving ministerial office. And if they decide to take on their green-benched colleagues in the Lower House, as they inevitably will, who will be able to shut them up? A direct mandate is a powerful thing. Look here, mate, a senator will be able to say to a poor old MP, you were elected by 70,000 people. I have 570,000 people in my constituency – and I don’t have to worry about them kicking me out. The whole beauty and balance of the present system would be wrecked. We accept the idea that the Lords is the “Upper House” only because the Commons – being elected – has the real primacy and the real democratic legitimacy. These reforms would undermine that primacy, and the status of MPs – already bashed by the expenses business – would become positively Lilliputian.
Boris concludes: “The Prime Minister was completely right when he said that reform of the House of Lords was something the government should consider in its third term. This plan is a bunch of tidy-minded Lib Dem nonsense. It would create a new, grandiose, expensive and unnecessary class of political hack. It would turn Parliament into a chronic feud between two types of elected representative. Clegg’s scheme needs to be liquidated, vaporised and generally terminated with extreme prejudice.