The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, last night vowed that the referendum on a London mayor and an assembly would go ahead in May in spite of a government defeat by six votes in the House of Lords.
Mr Prescott attacked the hereditary peers for inflicting the defeat on the Government and seeking to frustrate proposals which are expected to have widespread popular support when the referendum takes place.
The Lords passed an amendment to the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill, by 128 to 122, calling for the poll to be delayed until eight weeks after the Government's legislation setting out its plans for the new structures was published.
Ministerial sources said it would delay the referendum beyond the millennium. But Mr Prescott immediately hit back, saying: "It is an anti-democratic vote denying Londoners the chance to make their choice next year, decided by a handful of unelected hereditary peers.
"We fully intend to come back to the Commons to restore the right of the electors to vote in a referendum in May this year."
The defeat was seen as another nail in the coffin for the hereditary peers, and took place as a Cabinet committee chaired by Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, began discussions about the Government's plans to reform the House of Lords.
The reforms will be introduced gradually, but there were growing expectations that the Government would act first on removing the right of hereditary peers to vote in the Lords.
A small number, possibly about 20, of leading hereditary peers would be given life peerages to continue an active role in the Lords, but most hereditary peers would have to quit their places in the upper chamber.
Tony Benn warned yesterday that the left wing would be pressing for the Lords reforms to go further, to have the upper chamber elected in order to avoid it becoming a super quango under the patronage of the prime minister.Reuse content