Blair faces revolt as ministers demand elections for Lords

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TONY BLAIR is facing a revolt in Cabinet after refusing to bow to increasing pressure from ministers to reform the House of Lords so that between half and 80 per cent of peers are directly elected.

The Prime Minister is being urged by several cabinet ministers to keep Labour's promise to modernise the Lords by including a firm proposal in the party's general election manifesto. Those backing reform include the Chancellor, Gordon Brown; the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton; the Leader of the Commons, Peter Hain; the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke; the Trade Secretary, Patricia Hewitt and the Leader of the Lords, Baroness Amos.

Alan Milburn, Labour's election co-ordinator, and David Miliband, the cabinet minister who will draft the manifesto, are also sympathetic to the idea. Mr Blair is digging in his heels but some insiders predict he will be persuaded to back down because he is in a minority in the Cabinet, which will discuss its election strategy today.

The Prime Minister favours an all-appointed Lords. Although he has been accused of packing the second chamber with "Tony's cronies", he does not believe the reform issue will play strongly at the election.

But supporters of change have warned Mr Blair that Labour will be outflanked by the Tories and Liberal Democrats, who back a mainly elected chamber. They say Mr Blair's drive for modernisation should include political institutions as well as public services and that a promise of reform would appeal to liberal voters, many of whom are threatening to desert Labour because of the Iraq war. They also argue that a reform pledge would help restore people's trust in politics.

Lord Falconer promised last autumn that the issue was a "priority" that would be addressed in the manifesto. But his preferred scheme has been sunk after powerful objections by Mr Brown.

The Lord Chancellor and Mr Hain, who led the pressure for reform, wanted the second chamber to be indirectly elected, with peers nominated by political parties in proportion to the votes cast at a general election. But Mr Brown persuaded the Cabinet that this would harm Labour's election prospects. For example, people in Labour-Tory marginals might vote Liberal Democrat rather than Labour because their vote would no longer be "wasted".

Ministers who want reform now favour direct elections to the second chamber at a different time to a general election. The House could be elected in three stages and peers could serve for eight years. Options include a "50-50" split, in which half of the Lords would be elected and half appointed, and an 80 per cent elected chamber. MPs rejected the 80 per cent option by just three votes in 2003 and so it could win approval in the Commons.

To prevent an elected Lords rivalling the Commons, the powers of the second chamber to delay legislation would be curtailed. The 92 hereditary peers who survived when the others were banished in 1999 would lose their right to sit and vote and an independent commission would choose any appointed members.

One minister who supports change said: "We cannot go into the election with a less progressive policy than the other parties, who will say we are defending a system which gave us `Tony's cronies'."

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