'The House of Lords' remarked Clement Attlee is 'like a glass of champagne that has stood for five days.' But there's more vim and vigour in the current vintage and now peers are fizzing with righteous anger. The source of the outrage? Recent efforts by certain staff in the Palace to usurp what many feel are the traditional rights of members of the Upper House.
A virtual Parliament with the advent of Covid has given self-styled modernisers the ideal chance to mount what traditionalists fear is a hostile takeover on the Palace of Westminster. Peers have already been subject to the indignities of the 'Valuing Everyone' sexual harassment training at taxpayers' expense – a move which saw the nonagenarian Betty Boothroyd probed by a parliamentary watchdog.
Now though the latest row is the decision by the House this month to abolish full uniform and horsehair wigs for its parliamentary clerks, following an initial suspension in April 2020. The decision was revealed last week via a written parliamentary answer by Senior Deputy Speaker Lord Gardiner and states that traditional attire will now only be worn for ceremonial occasions – a decision taken without the consent of peers in the House.
It follows a similar move by John Bercow to scrap wigs for clerks in the Commons in 2017 and has not gone down well with many across the Lords. All three party leaders and the Lords Speaker are against the move and are believed to have wanted traditional attire back for when sitting resumed this month. The chief agitators are said to be some, but by no means all, members of the Clerks' office, with others instead preferring the authority and style they feel a traditional outfit conveys.
Lord Gardiner's answer makes clear that the costs of fitting new attire for the post-Covid expansion in the number of clerks is a major factor for the abolition of uniforms. But as one disgruntled source pointed out to Mr S, the costs of a handful of new outfits pales when one compares it to the millions involved in parliamentary renovations. They added: 'The views of members have been excluded completely – it's the House of Lords, not the house of clerks.'
Now some peers are willing to speak out about the way in which they feel members are being excluded from the running of the House. Lord Cormack told Mr S: ‘I don’t think that changes of this sort should be made without consulting the view of the House. There should have been a vote on this and the House should have decided. If it had been the majority view of the House, I would have spoken against it but I would have accepted it – I am a democrat. I deeply regret the way in wish this was decided.’
Former Cabinet minister Lord Forsyth added that the decision was not in isolation. He said: ‘It’s part of a wider problem where the House of Lords has been taken over by a commission where decisions are taken without proper consultation. It is no longer becoming a self-governing institution. Another example is the Valuing Everyone training and the action against Betty Boothroyd and Michael Heseltine.’
He added: ‘in the days when Tom Strathclyde was leader this would have been stopped’ and cited the current discontent with the direction of the House as a major factor in his unopposed election as chair of the Association of Conservative Peers (ACP) a week ago. He intends to hold regular meetings with the current Leader of the House, Natalie Evans, the Lord Speaker, John McFall, and the Clerk of the Parliaments, Simon Burton, to avert similar problems in the future.
Already the move has caused outcry among traditionalists on Twitter, with suggestions of a fundraising campaign to keep the clerks in their traditional garments. Steerpike suspects if the current clashes between the House and its members continue, it won't just be the peers left tearing their hair out.