The Lords are pawing the ground. You might think that after the recent referendum the Peers v. People issue had been settled, for a time. And it is true that a heavy majority of Remainers wore ermine on parade. But no: the Resistance movement is headed by Baroness Wheatcroft (nee Patience Wheatcroft, a financial journalist) who now urges that the Government “revisit” the LEAVE decision of the people. Weasels can wear ermine when they speak. The referendum decision was properly democratic and a Government that reneged would be overthrown. The peers’ revolt will be crushed by the Government, but it is significant, and points to the future. The Revisit movement is, for the present, framed or fronted in the House of Lords.
Let me take you through a day in the life of a peer. If you live in the sticks, your journey to London—first class—is paid for. You will stay at a decent hotel near Westminster, also on expenses, and you will of course be upgraded by the management. In the morning, after digesting your excellent breakfast, you stroll to the Palace of Westminster where you check in to prove your attendance. Nothing more is required. You do not have to speak in the Chamber, a blessed release. Around midday, you move to the House of Lords bar—there are several—for a pre-lunch drink, before going on to the House of Lords dining room. There you will have a first-class lunch, which with the house claret will not set you back more than £30/$50. You can afford a guest on that. Easily: the attendance allowance is £300 a day, which in a working week—I really do not need to add inverted commas for irony—comes to £1500, tax free. If the pangs of hunger should still visit you in the evening, you are guaranteed a desirable table in your restaurant of choice. “I am dead”, said Disraeli, “but in the Elysian fields.” The living can well rejoice. Milady is happy, and Milord—even if he looks like the ennobled Baldrick in Blackadder 3—has bragging rights over his contemporaries. Sum up all these gains, and you distill them to a single word: patronage. Nobody prizes it more than the Prime Minister, who ordains these rewards. For the sub-Marlovian hero of the peerage, they cap a life’s work
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly—coronet.
What can go wrong? The public, which has long got the point that peerages are expensive baubles given to time-servers, mediocrities, cronies, donors, is highly receptive to House of Lords reform. And this could be the issue, as the Lords challenge the Government over Brexit. In principle, reform is not too difficult, given the political will. There are some 850 current members of the Lords: a bill reducing the number to 200 (with a separate annex for hereditaries) should pass. These would be genuine “working peers”, who have something to say in the national conversation. The others could keep their titles, but since they would not be working, by definition, they would receive no allowances. Choice of the 200 would be left to the votes of the present members. Theresa May is a Tory reformer, always was, and she has nearly four years of power in which to implement her changes. I think that by 2020 it will have happened.
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