Robert Skidelsky
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Position of the Conservative Party
Robert Skidelsky
Hansard | Wednesday, November 24, 1999

 
 
1. Nothing said below is intended to reflect adversely on Lords Strathclyde and Henley. They have carried us through a very difficult period with great resourcefulness and aplomb.The fact that it is not intended to be critical of either makes it easier to broach the matter below.
 
2. There is an increasing and regrettable tendency of the Conservative leadership in the Commons to treat the Conservative peerage in the Lords as its poodle. The most recent instance is the report in the press that ‘Mr. Hague withdraws Conservative whip from Jeffrey Archer’. The issue is not whether or not Lord Archer deserved to have his whip withdrawn. It is the assumption that it is the Leader of the Party who decides and announces who receives the whip in the Lords, without any apparent reference to the views of the Conservative peers. At the very least, it should have been Lord Strathclyde who made the announcement.
 
3. This incident raises the question of whom the Leader of our Party in the Lords is responsible to. The Liberal Democrats and Cross-Benchers elect their leaders (or in the Cross-Bench case ‘convenors’). Their electorates are their peers. The leader of the Labour peers is elected when a vacancy arises in Opposition, and is appointed by the PM when Labour is in government.
 
4. The history of the Conservative leadership is more murky. In the 19th century the Conservative peers elected their leaders in opposition, exactly as Labour does today: e.g., Lord Salisbury in 1881. After that, as far as I can make out, there were no elections till 1931, mainly because the Conservatives were in government for most of the time (between 1915 and 1922 in coalition) and leaders of the House, appointed by the PM or his deputy, stayed on as leaders of the Conservative peers in opposition. In 1931, the peers elected Lord Hailsham as their leader, ‘at the request of Mr. Baldwin’. Since then, all leaders of the |Conservative peers have been appointed by the Prime Minister and stayed in post in Opposition, no deaths or resignations occurring during the period of opposition. That is, till 1998.
 
5. In December 1998, Mr. Hague dismissed Lord Cranborne as Conservative leader in the Lords and appointed Lord Strathclyde to succeed him. There was no consultation with Conservative peers. It did not occur to Mr. Hague (or anyone else) that he was not acting within his rights. He assumed that, in dismissing Lord Cranborne from his Shadow Cabinet, Lord Cranborne would automatically lose his job as leader of the Conservative peers, and that appointing Lord Strathclyde to the Shadow Cabinet and leadership of the Conservative peers was one and the same thing. But there was no precedent for the 1998 events.
 
6. Even if 1931 is taken into account, the doctrine that peers in Opposition have no say in who is to lead them seems to be a novel one, even for the Conservative party. Our peers are in a unique position: not only do they have no say in the election of their leader in the Lords; they have no say in the election of the leader of the Party who appoints their leader in the Lords.
 
7. This situation is unviable. It deprives our leader of authority both in the Shadow Cabinet and in our House.It led directly to the way Lord Archer was sacked. And it is inconsistent with the way our own procedures are likely to evolve. Nevertheless, some quite intricate questions have to be addressed before a more effective system can be put in place. The chief one has to do with the relationship between leadership of the Conservative peers and membership of the Shadow Cabinet.
 
8. In order to improve the working of the relationship between the two wings of the parliamentary party, I suggest that a small working party from our members in both Houses be set up to examine the problem and make recommendations. Now that the public are expecting a more effective House of Lords, this seems a good time to start.
 
 
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