It is virtually over. Almost everyone can see that the patient is dead. Refusing to switch off the life support machine is senseless. It merely means a further loss of dignity, a further waste of electricity. Nick Clegg's plans for House of Lords reform could never have worked. The Tory party's constitutional-nonsense rejection mechanism would always have made sure of that. The last few days have seen the Tory party at its best.
The PM has now come up with a compromise: tack on a partially-elected element. That is, quite simply, daft. The Clegg proposals already resembled a pantomime camel designed for a fourth-rate venue. David Cameron would like to give it a couple of extra humps. Let us assume that our life-supported brain-dead corpse, which would love to decompose if only the technicians would let it, were female. The PM is now suggesting that it could be brought back to life by a breast implant. Let us end this farce. The backbenchers who revolted showed commonsense and courage. They can take enduring pride in what they did — and it is not too late for others to join them. Go on: be brave: you will feel much better for it. In a few months' time, when the corpse is disposed of, those who hung back out of cowardly calculation will find it hard to look you in the eye. When the Whips have recovered from their hangover, they will have far more respect for the brave rebel than for the toadying sycophant eager to sell his soul for a PPSship. Those who stand by their party's standards and values should call themselves the Back to its Senses Group, for that is where they are trying to lead the government. That is where it needs to go, without further delay.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from this ridiculous affair. The first is that constitutional reform is a major undertaking. It is worth going back to the Latin. A constitution is something which enables us to stand together. As such, it is of immense importance. On the whole, we in the UK have been good at standing together, unlike most other countries. So we jeopardise these historic arrangements at our peril. No-one should embark upon constitutional change unless 1) they have given the matter a great deal of thought, 2) there is overwhelming public support for change: a widespread feeling that the present arrangements are profoundly unsatisfactory. As neither condition is within a thousand miles of being met, there should only be one outcome. When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.
The second is that the debate is not dead. Once we step back from premature and thoughtless legislation, it is possible to identify three serious and divergent positions. Let us call them the sentimentalists, the restrainers and the federalists. The sentimentalists — of whom I am one — found nothing wrong with the old House of Lords. Even if its composition might seem idiosyncratic, it worked: a charming blend of heredity, experience and expertise. The old House had a further advantage. It could obstruct the Commons; it could irritate Ministers by passing unwelcome amendments; it could impose some delays. That is all well and good; it is often desirable that governments should be asked to think again. But, on the whole, that was the limit of their Lordships' powers. As the Upper House had no democratic credentials, it could only go into battle against the Commons if it had strong public support.
This takes us beyond sentimentality, to the restrainers, and the most basic point of all. As Robert Salisbury has always insisted, the House of Lords is a second-order question. Your attitude to it should be determined by your attitude to the Commons. If you are content with a system of elective dictatorship, then leave the Lords alone. But if you believe that a second chamber should be able to confront the Commons, even if that means imposing legislative gridlock, you should be in favour of a largely-elected Lords. Only it would have the democratic legitimacy to challenge the Lower House.
But if you are tempted to subscribe to restraint, remember one thing. No elective dictatorship, no Margaret Thatcher. Lord Reith said that the best form of government was democracy tempered by assassination. Let us modify that to an elected dictatorship tempered by electoral assassination, and we have a good description of the British system. It has served us well. There is still no need to change.
The federalists would disagree. They point out that, with devolution, Britain has sleep-walked into federalism. There are now four legislative or quasi-legislative bodies in these islands, and the question of English votes for English laws is on the agenda. So the House of Lords should become a confederal body, dealing with UK-wide questions. That would certainly require a democratic mandate.
Even if one dislikes it, that argument cannot lightly be dismissed. But it is not necessary to act now. Let us see how things develop. In the mean time, the House of Lords, albeit damaged by Tony Blair's frivolous changes and bad appointments, still works. So let us leave it alone.
After the robust exchange of compliments between David Cameron and Jesse Norman, let us end this review by paraphrasing one of Eton's two greatest poets (Gray or Shelley? That would be an interesting discussion). "The curfew tolls the knell of never-passing reforms". Let the knell-ringers commence.
There is one final point which will seem trivial amidst grave constitutional matters, but still has some importance. We need to help the Liberals. Although it is their own fault that their amour-propre has suffered, we should be charitable. The government should offer them compensation. If they could come up with a proposal which would be popular, sensible and not too expensive, let them proclaim it and take the credit. Popular, sensible and not too dear: that is not much to ask… or is it? We are talking about Liberals.