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Lords reform: Backwards, not forwards

November 2023: King Charles III with Penny Mordaunt and Alex Chalk after the State Opening | Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

Attempting to change the second chamber has often been a case of two steps forward, one back

When Alex Chalk handed over the first King’s Speech for 72 years last month, I was reminded of Ginger Rogers, who was praised for doing everything that Fred Astaire did “but backwards and in high heels”. Not that the Lord Chancellor was wearing heels, though I’m sure the long-legged Chalk could have pulled it off, but in retreating down the steps of the throne with his face to the monarch he was risking an embarrassing fall.

Chalk’s feat drew jubilation from Jacob Rees-Mogg, who welcomed the return of tradition – “one occasion when the Tories have at last turned the clock back”, the North East Somerset MP purred – over “the modern innovation that we have been infected with”. That innovation has just marked its 25th birthday.

For centuries, lord chancellors had scaled the throne then walked down two steps backwards without falling over but it has been a rarity since Lord Irvine of Lairg, Tony Blair’s first embodiment of the law, was given an exeat in 1998. Before Lord Irvine’s dispensation, which his spokesperson said was Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s idea, helpfully denying that the boss had “doddery legs”, the only other lord chancellor to be let off was Lord Hailsham, who used two walking sticks.

Jack Straw was daring (his spokesperson gushed that “he can easily walk backwards, even wearing a cape”, though Nick Herbert, former Tory MP, said it was emblematic of his retreat on constitutional issues) and Lord Falconer of Thoroton did it for his first in 2003, but not thereafter, saying he had practised it “55,000 times” on the steps up to the loos. Peers must have wondered what he’d eaten. 

All 10 lord chancellors between Straw and Chalk, however, descended forwards, even Michael Gove, who may have thought it safer to have his back to his monarch than his adoring colleagues.

Lord Haskel concluded by warning that if the House of Lords wouldn’t let Lord Irvine change his trousers then the government would have to change the House of Lords

Walking downstairs forwards was not Lord Irvine’s only innovation in 1998. On 16 November of that year, peers spent two hours debating whether the lord chancellor could remove his tights on a regular workday. Lord Irvine did not want to dress up as something from Iolanthe every time he came to the Chamber. Off with the tights, out with the buckled shoes and breeches, and bin the wig!

Lord Strabolgi said peers “have to move with the times in this more informal age” and observed that they had ditched frock coats and top hats without civilisation falling. Lord Lester of Herne Hill said traditionalists risked making the Upper House “look ridiculous”. Lord Waddington cheekily asked how Lord Irvine could be sure that his tights were uncomfortable since he came to the House rather less often than his predecessors.

Earl Ferrers, whose amendment to block the dressing-down lost by only 30 votes, said the uniform went with the job, as it does for guardsmen and Black Rod, and called for “humility”. He observed, not unfairly, that Lord Irvine didn’t seem to mind Victorian fashions when it came to redoing the wallpaper in the lord chancellor’s apartments. Baroness Young wondered where it would stop. “If we want to be really modern, why not wear T-shirt and jeans?” she asked. 

It was Lord Haskel who summed it up best. “When I go home this evening and am asked what important legislation we debated today, I shall have to say, ‘the lord chancellor’s clothes’,” the Labour peer sighed. He concluded by warning that if the House of Lords wouldn’t let Lord Irvine change his trousers then the government would have to change the House of Lords. And so it did. Once the tights and breeches went, belt and braces reform soon followed. 

Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics

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