The decision, which means the next election will be fought under the present first-past-the-post system, will anger Labour supporters of electoral reform and the Liberal Democrats, who had hoped the Prime Minister would endorse immediate change to a more proportional method.
His critics will regard Mr Blair's position as a cynical calculation that Labour will win an overall majority at the next election, and then introduce electoral reform for the poll after next, when it may need to join forces with Paddy Ashdown's party to keep the Tories out of power.
In a policy document published yesterday, the Lib Dems pencilled in October next year as the likely date for the referendum on the voting system promised in Labour's election manifesto last year. But senior ministers told The Independent there was no prospect of the referendum being held before 2000, since legislation would not be introduced in the crowded Parliamentary session starting this November.
Another reason for delay is that changing the voting system would almost certainly require the Boundary Commission to redraw the map of Parliamentary constituencies, a process that would take two or three years. With Mr Blair likely to call the next election in 2001, there would not be time for a boundary review to be carried out by then.
Mr Blair will soon start consulting senior ministers about the scale of voting reform. He is treading cautiously because the Cabinet is split between supporters of full-scale proportional representation (PR), such as Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and opponents of change, who include John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and Gordon Brown, the Chancellor.
Mr Blair, who has said he is "not persuaded" about PR, is expected to seek a cabinet consensus for a limited change under which voters would list candidates in their order of preference instead of voting for one.
Such a system is expected to be recommended next month by a commission, set up by Mr Blair last year, which is chaired by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the Lib Dem peer and former Labour minister. Under the Jenkins plan, the single- member constituencies would be reduced from 659 to about 500, with a "top-up" of about 100 MPs elected according to each party's share of the overall vote.
Mr Blair is anxious to limit the number elected on a proportional basis. He wants a system under which it would still be possible for one party to win an overall majority, so that Britain would not be governed by a series of coalitions. Mr Blair therefore opposed a previous plan by Lord Jenkins for one-third of MPs to be elected according to each party's share of the total vote.
Close allies insisted yesterday that Mr Blair had not made up his mind on electoral reform, with one saying: "It's a huge decision, one of the biggest he will make. It will require a delicate balancing act."Reuse content