After Disraeli moved from the Commons to the Lords, and a friend asked how he felt, he said: “I am dead – dead, but in the Elysian fields.”
And still, for the occasional visitor, there is an Elysian quality to the House of Lords. How astonishing to see so many people one thought were dead, or had forgotten all about, crowded into the grand, gold and red chamber to debate the Cooper Bill.
They look 20 or 30 years older, they move with sticks, some have become very thin and hunched, others have reconciled themselves to a spreading paunch, it can be difficult to remember their names, but here they are in heaven, still able to hold forth in the tones they employed of old as Cabinet ministers, still able to clash with each other about the great issues of the day.
There is only one catch. These celestial beings can have very little effect on what happens back on earth, in the House of Commons. When the elected Chamber is determined to do something, the unelected Chamber knows it has to give way.
But before it gives way, it can protest with deep feeling, frame the necessary arguments and seek to delay. This duty was today taken on by Lord Forsyth, who served as Scottish Secretary in John Major’s administration, and lost his seat, along with all the other Scottish Conservatives, in 1997.
Forsyth has always relished fighting for what looks like a lost cause. He rose to oppose the Cooper Bill and claimed it had nothing to do with Brexit, and everything to do “with the procedures of this House”.
“Our role as a House is protecting the constitution,” he went on. That constitution is threatened by “the putative Prime Minister”, Sir Oliver Letwin, who with “extraordinary arrogance” has sought to turn the Commons into the government of the day, instead of the check on the government of the day.
Forsyth warned that suspending standing orders could lead to tyranny. But he and his allies, including Lord Strathclyde and Lord True, were soon accused by their opponents on the Labour benches of trying to waste time.
Before this first part of the debate was cut short by a closure motion, Lord Owen, who sits as an Independent Social Democrat and as David Owen was the youngest Foreign Secretary since Anthony Eden, rose to speak.
He warned peers not to imagine “that we’re in a little bubble here which has no implications for anything else”. The country see a London elite blocking Brexit. “Shame on you” if peers did anything to help that happen.
My two neighbours in the Lords press gallery, neither of whom is easily impressed, exclaimed with admiration at this speech.
The supporters of the Cooper Bill won all the early votes, most of which were designed to prevent filibustering by its opponents, by majorities of comfortably over a hundred.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town, who spoke first for the Bill from the Labour front bench, said that if necessary she was prepared to debate all night in order to get it through: “I have discovered that breakfast starts at seven in the morning.” Would that Brexit started then too.
Meanwhile the Commons was suspended for the day because water was pouring through the roof into the Press Gallery. Perhaps their Lordships will need, after all, to take charge of the nation’s affairs.