There is a tradition that when the House of Lords meets – by and large without fancy dress - on the afternoon of the day of the Queen’s Speech two loyal Government backbenchers are chosen to propose “an humble address” thanking the Queen for taking the time to open the new session of Parliament.
This afternoon – in the spirit of the new coalition – two loyal – allegedly loyal – backbenchers from the Government benches – one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat duly made their speeches thanking the Sovereign. The new proprieties were followed: they referred to each other as “My Noble Friend”. However, the implicit stresses and strains in the new relationship were visible for all to see.
The Conservative speaker was the very grand Earl Ferrers, a member of the House for over 55 years. There has been a Ferrers sitting in the House of Lords for hundreds of years and his ancestor the fourth Earl has the distinction of being the last member of the House to have been hung for murder- in 1760. The present Earl (the thirteenth) is an individual not known for his liking of other political parties. This is what he said about the Liberal Democrats:
“They received fewer seats than they expected, but I congratulate them on holding office for the first time in 65 years. That is quite an achievement whichever way you look at it. They have been at the forefront of all political jokes, especially from my party, most of which we thought were wholly justified. But not no more! We are chained together like suffragettes. When the late Lord Pethick-Lawrence, whom I remember sitting at the end of the Bench opposite, was in another place and his wife was a formidable suffragette, he made the wonderful observation that he would give £100 to a charity for every day that his wife remained chained to the railings of the House of Commons.”
Earl Ferrers has a reputation as a traditionalist. And he did not hide his distaste for some of the constitutional change promised in the forthcoming session, saying:
“A fixed-term Parliament: that is a new idea.”
“New” is not a word of praise in his lexicon. And he went on:
“There was a lot of talk about the Government wanting an Opposition majority of 55 per cent in another place before the Government are unseated. Your Lordships will have your own views as to whether that is wise or not. I shall content myself with saying that when the Labour Government were defeated in 1979 on a Motion of no confidence, I was watching in the Gallery. There was a sombre feeling in another place because everyone thought that the Motion was lost. Then, one of the Whips—Anthony Berry I think it was—rushed in holding up one finger. The roar was tremendous. Everyone knew that the Government had lost by one. Everyone understood that. Now, one would have to work out 55 per cent of 423—[Laughter]—and come in holding up three and a half fingers.”
And as for House of Lords reform:
“A second House which is wholly or partially elected is in the gracious Speech. One does not have to be a genius to realise from which end of the suffragette’s chain that idea came. I have always had the respectful temerity to advise your Lordships not to cheer too much at the removal of the hereditary Peers because the life Peers would be next. …. I can never understand why we always have to use up energy and parliamentary time in changing things which are working well—time which could be better addressed to the subjects which are not working well. I think that I had better not pursue that line too far, because it might be regarded as controversial, which of course it is not.”
Now Earl Ferrers is the President of the Association of Conservative Peers. His loyalty to the Conservative Party is unimpeachable, but if that is his view of the Coalition and its constitutional proposals, it doesn’t sound as if the Government is going to have an easy time.