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Blair faces rebellion over Lords reform

TONY BLAIR was last night facing a rebellion by Labour peers against his plans to reform the House of Lords, with rebel Labour members threatening to join forces with the Tories to oppose the shake-up.

Several Labour life peers believe that ministers are wrong to press ahead with the abolition of the speaking and voting rights of hereditary peers until a "stage two" plan to turn the Lords into a partly elected second chamber is agreed.

The Government's move to set up a Royal Commission to study long-term reform, which was intended to placate potential Labour rebels, appeared to have backfired last night. Labour rebels and independent cross-benchers warned that ministers would use the inquiry as an excuse to delay or abandon a "big bang" reform.

The former Labour MP, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, welcomed the commission but urged ministers to delay abolishing hereditary peers' rights until the commission reports.

"It seems to be ridiculous to go ahead," Lord Stoddart said.

"I don't think positions should be taken before the commission reports, otherwise there is no point in setting it up. Suppose the commission says you ought not to have ended the [rights of] hereditary peers?" he said.

Lord Stoddart said he was prepared to join forces with other parties to oppose the plans. Asked if he might refuse to support the Bill, he said: "It is quite feasible. I shall look at the whole thing and I will have to make a decision. You can not support the Government by abstaining as well."

He warned that opposition to the Bill on hereditary peers could delay other measures in the parliamentary session starting next month. The Government could save these by shelving Lords reform until the commission reports. "All it does is to cause a lot unnecessary trouble. There is no desperate hurry," he said. "The findings of the commission will be too easily shelved or set aside if the hereditaries have already been abolished."

In another setback for the Government, Lord Weatherill, the former Commons Speaker who is convenor of the crossbenchers in the Lords, said: "There is growing unease among all types of peers. I am concerned that stage two may not happen and think ministers should say exactly when it will."

Lord Weatherill's intervention and the rumblings of discontent amongst Labour peers will bolster the Tories as they plan guerrilla tactics against the Bill, to be announced in the Queen's Speech next month, to abolish the speaking and voting rights of hereditary peers.

Lord Strathclyde, the Opposition chief whip in the Lords, said there was a "grand coalition" of life and hereditary peers across all parties building against the Government's handling of the reforms.

On the eve of a two-day debate in the Lords on the reforms, Labour backbench peers last night told The Independent they were growing disaffected with the appointment of "Labour luvvies" to the Lords as life peers, and the long hours they are sitting.

"There is a great deal of resentment. Some people are talking about scores to be settled. We are working longer hours than the MPs and Tony doesn't seem to listen. People just won't turn up when they are needed," said an ex-Labour minister who is now a life peer.

Another problem is that some senior Labour peers want the commission to have wide terms of reference including the Commons, the Lords' role as the highest court in the land and the future of the monarchy.

"I think the monarchy works well. But if you want to say that people who hold an hereditary position have no place in the Constitution, then ... you have to look at Her Majesty," one said.