Mr Blair's move to reach an all-party consensus on reform of the Lords split the Tories and threw them into disarray last night. Lord Cranborne was ready to compromise but failed to win Mr Hague's backing.
The proposed agreement had been discussed behind the scenes for several months and included meetings between Lord Cranborne and Mr Blair within the past two weeks. But Mr Hague's allies accused Lord Cranborne of "freelancing" without his authority.
The secret talks emerged in extraordinary scenes during Prime Minister's question time yesterday, when Mr Blair and Mr Hague clashed over the breakdown of the negotiations.
Under a U-turn backed by Mr Blair, 91 hereditaries would have survived when the other 650 lose their right to speak and vote in the Lords, preventing a year of "guerrilla warfare" over reform of the second chamber. The 91 would remain until the Government implemented "stage two" of its reforms, turning it into a partly elected chamber within several years.
Lord Cranborne, a hereditary peer and the great-great grandson of Lord Salisbury, the Tory prime minister, won the backing of Tory peers for his consensual strategy by a margin of about 4-1. This was was a severe rebuff for Mr Hague, who insisted the Tories could not support the plan until Mr Blair spelt out the detail of "stage two".
The Earl of Onslow said after the meeting: "As far as I'm concerned Lord Cranborne is totally secure and he got the full support of the meeting." He later described his departure as "an absolute tragedy".
But a furious Mr Hague felt he was left with no option but to sack the Opposition leader in the Lords. This was announced after Mr Hague won the backing of the Shadow Cabinet and held a private meeting with Lord Cranborne and Michael Ancram, the Tory chairman.
"Lord Cranborne tried to bounce the party into accepting a deal which it would not accept," Mr Hague's spokesman said.
Lord Cranborne said he had been "sacked for running in like an ill-trained spaniel" over the row with Mr Hague.
Tension between the two had been rising in recent weeks. Mr Hague also overruled the peer's move to adopt a more conciliatory line in the current parliamentary session to the Bill bringing in proportional representation for European Parliament elections.
Mr Hague now faces a rebellion by Tory peers. Lord Cranborne is a popular figureand rumours swept Westminster last night that other frontbench spokesmen in the Lords may resign in protest to form a breakaway group which would support the compromise plan when it is put to a vote.
Although Mr Hague's allies said he had shown strong leadership by sacking Lord Cranborne, some MPs were privately worried the Tory leader would be blamed for scuppering an attempt to reach consensus on Lords reform.
"The hereditaries want to find a way of dying with dignity, but Mr Hague is the only person who wants them to die in the ditch," said a Liberal Democrat source.
Downing Street said the consensus would have freed up more parliamentary time and allowed the Government to introduce other measures in the current session, including the postponed plans to set up a Food Standards Agency and a Strategic Rail Authority.
In return, the Government would have speeded up its "stage two" reform plan.
Talks on the agreement involved Lord Cranborne; Mr Blair; Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor and Baroness Jay, the leader of the Lords. The crossbench peers played a pivotal role and announced their compromise plan yesterday, unaware that Mr Hague had torpedoed it minutes earlier.
Lord Weatherill, the former Commons speaker who acts as convenor of the crossbenchers, said he would be disappointed if the deal they had brokered was rejected.
He warned that the alternative to a mutually agreed solution was "war, people with fixed bayonets, fighting in the last ditch, which would be ridiculous, bringing the House of Lords into disrepute".
The crossbenchers will try to keep the proposal alive by tabling their plan as an amendment to the Bill on hereditaries, which will be introduced in the new year. Labour ministers said last night the deal was "still possible" and hoped it would go through.
Profile, page 2
Parliament, page 8Reuse content