House of Lords reform: Ditchers and hedgers

History, they say does not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes; and on the issue of House of Lords reform it's lapsing into iambic pentameter.

With the formation of the Joint Committee to consider the Draft Bill on Lords reform, their Lordships are edging towards exactly the dilemma that confronted noble Tories like Lords Curzon and Lansdowne, a century ago, when Asquith's Liberal government moved decisively to clip their Lordships' wings.

The choice then was to accept unwelcome reform, or face something they viewed as much, much worse. Eventually the Conservatives in the Lords split between hedgers and ditchers - the hedgers (as in hedging bets) didn't want to see the King forced to create a thousand Liberal Peers to outvote them in their own House, and forever change the balance of power there, so they accepted the Parliament Bill, which removed their powers over finance measures and gave the Commons a mechanism to over-ride Lords objections to other bills.

The Ditchers promised to "die in a ditch" to preserve the Lords as it then was. And they eventually did. The hedgers won the day, and the Upper House accepted a diminished role as recriminations flew between them.

Now the choice is to push for a compromise version of the Government's Lords reforms, or to face something much less congenial - if they believe the Government is serious. At the moment the default view in the Lords (and parts of the Commons) is that come 2013-14, the Government won't have the energy for an epic battle to impose reform in the teeth of opposition from the Upper House, and that Nick Clegg is simply being strung along, left to play in a constitutional wendy house, until the moment arrives when David Cameron pulls the rug from under him.

This week I attended a fascinating session on constitutional reform at the uber-think tank the Institute for Government, and put that possibility to the Constitutional Reform Minister, Mark Harper. His determination was unblinking - and he thought there was considerable support for reform on the Tory benches, particularly among the very large new intake, even though it wasn't a top priority for them.

Much now turns on whether the Joint Committee can produce a package of proposals which could lure modern day hedgers into accepting the Bill. Issues like the length of term served by elected peers (or senators or whatever - the Government, wisely, has not been sidetracked into suggesting a name for the revamped Upper House) the number of appointed independent experts who will serve alongside the elected members, and, crucially, the speed of transition from the current Lords to its successor, will all be up for grabs.

Reformers pin some hope on the Chair, the former Labour Leader of the Lords, Lord Richard. He attracted adjectives like "ponderous" and "operator" from some of the throng at the IfG event - but most agreed that he was an experienced chairman who knew how to get things done. His first move might be to break up the rather large and unwieldy joint committee into bite-sized chunks - and set them to work on different aspects of the Draft Bill. The hope is his committee will lick the proposals into shape and ultimately make peers an offer they dare not refuse.

In this scenario, grudging acceptance of the proposals by peers persuades the Government to adopt the proposals of the Joint Committee - and reform sails through. Job done.

But if peers remain obdurate ditchers, ministers may take a different view and propose an all-elected House with a more abrupt transition period. The moral is that unhappy peers have something to gain from negotiation and compromise - and that the wages of opposition is death - or at any rate more draconian reform.

But as I say this only works if they believe the Government - by which I mean Conservative ministers, are really serious.