By Tim Montgomerie
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In an 'exit interview' for last night's Channel 4 News Lord Strathclyde's silky performance suggested that he could have been more of a front-of-camera spokesman for the Conservative Party over recent years. He isn't retiring from political life - just leaving the frontbench - and I hope we will continue to see and hear a lot from him.
I asked a few members of the Upper House to offer a few words about their outgoing Leader and here is what they said...
Lord Bates focuses on Lord Strathclyde's youth
"To imagine the House of Lords without Lord Strathclyde at the helm is a bit like imagining Manchester United without Sir Alex Ferguson. Tom Strathclyde has played a masterful role at the centre of the House of Lords for quarter of a century. It has been one of the great political innings of our time. Tom's style is unobtrusive but marked with a steely focus not on himself but
on duty. If I was asked to sum Tom up in one word it would be 'loyalty,' loyalty to the Prime Minister, the Conservative Party and the House of Lords. The fact that at the tender age of fifty-two he could still take ten years out and come back as into a prominent role in the House of Lords as a relative 'spring chicken' is testament to his extraordinary achievement and ability. He will be missed, his example will endure and he will be back."
Baroness Stowell remembers the way Tom Strathclyde again and again steadied the Tory ship
"I first got to know Tom Strathclyde in 1998 when William Hague appointed him Leader of the Conservatives in the Lords after the infamous departure of Lord Cranborne. It was a tense time (I know, they all are, but like them all, this seemed especially so) and I wasn’t sure how things would pan out for William and his relationship with the remaining Conservative peers. What became clear very quickly was that everything would be OK, precisely because Tom Strathclyde was at the helm. And to this day, that’s what having Tom in charge has meant to me: whatever the matter and however rocky it might seem, everything will work out OK.
Tom is the calm, reassuring figure, light of touch and wise of mind that is essential to any successful team and it’s been great to work with him again and to have him for a boss. I’ve loved the way he takes his responsibilities seriously, but never himself, and I’ve valued his encouragement when us junior frontbenchers are about to face the Opposition at the dispatch box.
I will miss Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith (thank God he keeps it simple with Lord Strathclyde) and I’m sad he’s decided to step down. But as his mind’s made up, my great relief is that he is succeeded by the wonderful, talented and equally able Jonathan Hill."
And Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, Baroness Berridge and first Baroness Jenkin...
Anne Jenkin: "Tom Strathclyde is the ultimate Safe Pair of Political Hands. Aged only 52, and one of the younger members of the House or Lords (average age 71), he is also, with 27 years in Parliament and 25 years unbroken service on the Front Bench, not only one of the most skilful operators in the Cabinet, but also one of the most experienced Peers, amongst some very experienced people. He has seen it all before. The job of Leader is rather like herding cats, but he has done it with panache and style, welcoming new people, keeping egos sweet, rarely dropping a catch and all with a big twinkle in his eyes. He is a good advertisement for the hereditaries. Jonathan Hill has big shoes to fill. Business’s gain will be our loss and all colleagues in the Lords will wish him well."
Elizabeth Berridge: "Although Lord Strathclyde clearly knew the culture and practices like the back of his hand he had not forgotten what it was like to join, especially when you are one of the younger members of the Conservative Benches. I greatly valued his introductory advice along with his good sense of humour. Tom was excellent at exhibiting the dividing line between managing government business and facilitating the self regulation which governs the Lords’ procedure. I keenly remember Tom trying to limit one of the debates on Lords’ reform to one day not two (Tom clearly believed in miracles) and when it became clear that the will of the House was for more than a day Tom privately gave way. He will be missed."
Brian Griffiths: “Tom was a great leader of the House for which he had an instinctive ‘feel’. He was extremely approachable, always ready to listen but at the end of the day led with a very firm hand. I think the House is a better place and much stronger because of his leadership. I shall miss him in many ways but in particular for his Chairmanship of the cross-party Dorneywood Trust.”
And two tributes from non-Tories...
Lord Wood, Labour peer, and adviser to Ed Miliband:
"Tom Strathclyde led Tory peers through 14 years and four Commons leaderships with a mixture of wit, charm and sometimes old-fashioned bluster. Labour colleagues all use similar words to describe him: straight, true to his word, warm and friendly (even in the most difficult and partisan moments), supportive of colleagues experiencing tough times. He was also a highly capable political operator, using humour and calm steeliness to defuse political deadlock and get government business through an increasingly fractious House. His twinkles and chuckles, in private and at the Despatch Box, often revealed that he did not share his party’s line (especially on Lords reform). But he was never disloyal to the Tory Party that he loves so much, and that he has served with such distinction."
Lord Alton of Liverpool, Crossbench peer, predicts that debates will be "infinitely poorer" if Lord Strathclyde doesn't make his voice heard
"Tom Strathclyde's decision to leave the Government and to return to his business career robs the Government and the Conservative Party of a skilful and well liked politician.
Since Margaret Thatcher offered him his first post some 25 years ago, his combination of charm and intelligence has been deployed in the House of Lords to great effect - at turns cajoling, teasing, exhorting, and explaining - and usually getting his way.
Beneath a genial and avuncular exterior lurks a formidable and skilful politician. He is also a decent man, never taking his supporters for granted and is generous to his opponents.
His famous unflabability was sorely tested over the contentious case of the dog's breakfast of Lords Reform. Whilst most of the House doubted that the Leader of the House actually believed in what was on offer, Tom Strathclyde had to remain loyal to the Government. His shrewdness and personal popularity enabled him to successfully navigate these treacherous waters.
As the Coalition Government reaches its half way mark (presuming that it runs a full term) Tom Strathclyde has left it on his own terms with his reputation in tact - no mean feat in politics. His will be a hard act for Lord Hill to follow - not least as Liberal Democrat Peers now seek to reverse the commitment to constituency boundary reforms which were the quid pro quo for the AV referendum.
Many will hope that from time to time Tom Strathclyde's voice will still be heard in House of Lords debates - not least on Scotland's future in the Union which, given his origins, remains a subject dear to his heart. If his voice is not heard in our deliberations Parliament and public life will be infinitely poorer."
By Matthew Barrett
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He was first asked by Labour peer Lord Grocott - Lord Strathclyde answered in a dry tone, and managed to suppress laughter when speaking:
"Lord Grocott: Have the Government still not learnt the lesson of the AV referendum? Unlike the Deputy Prime Minister, the British public do not think that our constitution is broken and they think that Government should spend their time on other, more important matters. Can I suggest that before the Government embark on any future constitutional experiments they apply two tests? First, do the public want it? Secondly, is there a political consensus to deliver it?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, it is true that the Government have not been overwhelmed with responses from the public after the publication of the White Paper. However, at least one interpretation of that is that the public are reasonably satisfied with the proposals that the Government have put forward."
The House was united in laughter.
"Does my noble friend accept that in a number of bicameral systems in the world it is possible for a Prime Minister to be in either House? While it might not be acceptable to public opinion at the moment for a Prime Minister to sit in this House as it is presently constituted, if in, say, 10 years' time this House is wholly elected, is deemed more legitimate and is demanding more powers, would it not be appropriate and necessary for there to be more senior Ministers in this House? Would it not be wrong for the Government's legislation to exclude the possibility of a Prime Minister being in this House, as used to be the case right up to the early years of the 20th century?"
Leader of the Lords, Tom Strathclyde responded:
"The fact is that the Prime Minister is First Lord of the Treasury. It would a very strange thing, given the reduced powers of this House since 1911, for the Prime Minister to be a Member of this House. Therefore, we have no plan or proposal to make it so."
The ePolitix website sees these issues as the beginning of a potential power struggle between the Lords and what would be an elected Lords. Many people would start to see the Lords - if elected by PR - as more legitimate than the Commons.
In answering another question Lord Strathclyde confirmed that "it was in the coalition agreement that, in the event of there being an elected second Chamber, it would be under the system of proportional representation." My own view remains that Tory MPs won't stomach AV or an elected Upper House but, if AV is defeated, Nick Clegg will insist on Lords reform.
86 MORE TORY PEERS THIS PARLIAMENT?
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon for Labour asked if the Government will continue to pursue the coalition agreement's commitment that "Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election", meaning, she concluded, "86 more Conservative Peers and 99 more Liberal Democrat Peers."
Lord Strathclyde responded: "My Lords, over time, we shall certainly wish to produce what is in the coalition agreement."
More in Hansard.
By Jonathan Isaby
A small number of Labour peers having been increasingly testing their Lordships' patience with their filibustering, with the aim of stopping the Bill from reaching the Statute Book by mid-February, which would have the effect of delaying the AV referendum scheduled for May 5th.
But the impasse now appears to be over.
Lord Strathclyde told the Lords yesterday afternoon:
"I am delighted to be able to inform the Committee that there is now agreement among the usual channels on a timetable for completing Committee. As a result of a series of productive discussions, the usual channels agree that Committee should be completed by the end of business on Wednesday this week. This is within the time that has already been scheduled and indicated on the Order Paper. I am sure that all noble Lords who have followed proceedings on the Bill, and perhaps a few who have not, will welcome a return to the effective functioning of the usual channels on the Bill, and I sincerely hope that this means that there is no longer any need for me to ask the Committee collectively to come to a resolution on how proceedings on the Bill should be regulated.
"During Committee so far, the Government have held meaningful discussions with the Opposition and with a number of other Members of the House, in addition to debate on the Bill in the Chamber. As a result, the Government will bring forward a package of concessions on Report, and I am sure that the whole House will welcome that. Therefore, we are in the welcome position of having agreement to complete Committee by the end of Wednesday this week. Equally, I am sure I have no need to remind the Committee that we need to return this Bill to the other place by the end of Monday, 14 February - that is, two weeks today - if the referendum is to be held on 5 May. From the soundings that I have taken, I feel confident that the majority of Members from all parts of the Chamber share this aim."
Today's Independent suggests that a "package of concessions" has been agreed to both break that deadlock and prevent the need for a guillotine of some kind - something which would be anathema in the Upper House:
"Among the proposals thought to be on offer is the suggestion that public inquiries take place where boundary changes are contentious. There is also likely to be some sort of post-legislation scrutiny of the reduction to 600 seats and a greater variation of seat sizes – a key demand of Labour."
By Jonathan Isaby
During the second day of the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in the House of Lords, peers backed a move which could delay the AV referendum until next autumn.
Peers passed an amendment proposed by Labour peer Lord Rooker by a majority of just four votes to allow the referendum to take place before October 31st rather than on May 5th as specified by the Bill at present - a "contingency measure", as Lord Rooker put it, since Royal Assent is some time away and there may not be time for the necessary preparations to be made for a spring poll.
"I support the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on this amendment, not because I am completely relaxed about whether this referendum on the alternative vote is held on 5 May or later, because I am not. I think that there will be enormous confusion if the referendum is held on the same day as local elections. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has pointed out, this is an extremely complex matter, which is not well understood by the electorate. Therefore, we need a special day. I am not too worried when it is after the local elections on 5 May, but it should be on a separate day. I know that this would involve £15 million-worth of public expenditure at a time of austerity. But this is a very important change in our constitutional arrangements and it has to be properly debated. The people of this country have got to understand what is at stake.
"If the referendum is to be wrapped up in local authority elections with certain, say, Labour campaigners saying, "Vote for your Labour candidate, but vote against the alternative vote in the referendum"-the Conservatives would be doing similar-that will be extremely confusing to the electorate. Therefore, it is important that the referendum is held on a separate day. This is a radical and important change in our electoral system, and it should not be allowed to be muddled up in the local elections. I do not think that it will be satisfactory for anyone, whatever the result of the referendum, if it goes through while the electorate do not understand what was going on. We need a separate date. We need to debate it properly and to make absolutely certain that the people of this country understand what is at stake and understand the issues involved in whether we have an alternative vote system or not. That is why it should be on a separate date and why I am pleased to support the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in his amendment."
But the Leader of the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, was having none of it:
The House of Lords announced the appointment of a new Black Rod yesterday, Sir Freddie Viggers. He replaces Sir Michael Willcocks (right).
The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod is responsible for the daily management of the House of Lords and summons MPs to the Lords for the Queen's Speech.
Lord Strathclyde spoke for the Conservatives, citing Downing Street's revolting attempt to muscle in on the Queen Mother's funeral, which Black Rod saw off:
"My Lords, I wholeheartedly associate myself and this side of the House with the tribute that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has just made in welcoming Lieutenant-General Sir Freddie Viggers and with her tremendous expressions of gratitude to Sir Michael Willcocks.
I would like to speak particularly of Sir Michael's role in ceremonial. Need I say more of Sir Michael's conduct than that it was masterly in every sense of the word? After all, he is one of the few to come under attack from that notorious network of spin doctors and not only to survive it but, with characteristic tenacity and courage, to teach those who tried to bully him a sharp lesson or two.
Ceremony is an expression of the roots and the continuities that are needed in a fast-changing modern world. It is an affirmation that institutions are greater than those who temporarily embody them and it is something that I believe we in Britain do better than anyone. Day in, day out, in small things and big, Black Rod has unfailingly seen that we put our feet in the right place—and he has never put a foot wrong either.
Sir Michael's place in the history books is assured, when all is said and done, for his conduct of, and in, that immense and moving event of the lying-in-state of a greatly loved Queen. No one who witnessed that event will ever forget it, or the fact that Westminster Hall was open 24 hours a day for people to pay their respects. It was largely thanks to Sir Michael that it was a unifying ceremony of state and nothing more.
In that great work of literature, the Alastair Campbell Diaries, Sir Michael is described as “that little ... (expletive deleted)”. That accolade alone shows that he must have done something right. I am told that Black Rod's reaction, with that typically pithy sense of humour, was, “How dare he call me little?”
Sir Michael was a big man, in a great office, that he carried out with exemplary loyalty and devotion to this House and, above all, to the Crown. We will all miss him. We thank him sincerely, and we wish him well."
Traditions like these make Britain special. And no, it is not an unnecessary diversion to talk about such things in a recession. David Cameron's Government should be sure not to take a wrecking ball to our structures. Nor should it be afraid to put back together the bits that Labour have broken. Respect for well established institutions is as crucial an element of Conservatism as belief in free markets.
The Conservative front bench in the House of Lords has been slightly reshuffled.
The recently enobled Lord Bates of Langbaurgh (right) becomes Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, and also a Whip. As Michael Bates, he was MP for Langbaurgh between 1992 and 1997. The constituency has been abolished, and is essentially now Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland. Lord Bates is a former Paymaster General.
Throughout his time in politics Michael has been a tireless advocate for the Conservative Party in the North East of England and for the North East at Westminster. Working recently with William Hague on Campaign North and the Northern Board as Deputy Chairman of the Party (North) the party has done well to promote a proven talent to another key role as we approach the General Election. Lord Bates will make a great contribution to the Shadow Team.
Commenting on his appointment Lord Bates said:
"I am delighted to be called to the Front Bench at such a critical time for the country and the Party. The country is crying out for a change from this cynical old Labour administration that has brought us to the brink of bankruptcy. It will be a huge honour to work with the Shadow Cabinet Office ministerial team preparing the Conservative Party for a return to government under David Cameron. I am also delighted to be working in the Opposition Whips' Office, since my arrival in the House of lords I have been hugely impressed at the skill of Lord Strathclyde and Baroness Anelay in deftly exposing ill-conceived legislation and ensuring an arrogant and out of touch government who treat Parliament with disdain regularly get their comeuppance in their Lordships House."
Lord de Mauley becomes Shadow Minister for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Baroness Morris has asked to stand down as Shadow Minister for Children, Schools and Families (and is replaced by Baroness Verma) but remains Shadow Minister for Women in the Whips Office.
The Tory leader in the House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde, commented:
"I am delighted to welcome Lord Bates on to the frontbench, he brings significant experience as a former minister, and insight drawn from a successful career in business."
Lord Strathclyde, who leads the Conservatives in the upper chamber, offered further proof yesterday (as if it were needed!) that in a sane world the Prime Minister would always be a hereditary peer:
"We hear that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been reading up on the history of the great depression. Well, that should cheer the country up. Was not one of the abiding lessons of that time that protectionism was a disastrous factor in exacerbating recession or what is now called contraction?"
Love it loud.
NB: Some of the sentiments expressed in this post should be taken with a pinch of salt, unlike Lord Strathclyde's spirited defence of free trade.