"I want to see the abolition of the hereditary principle. It is over. We should move on to a democratic arrangement," he said. "It must be elected. This will cause some astonishment - I hear a great gasp of breath."
Sir Edward's remarks pulled the rug from under the feet of the Tory leader, who led his party against the Bill to abolish the hereditary peerage. A source close to Baroness Jay of Paddington, the Leader of the Lords, said: "It is very welcome to hear these comments. No one can vote against this Bill without the implication that they want to defend the hereditary principle."
Sir Edward's call to Tory peers to support the removal of hereditary peers' rights to vote and speak in the Lords is likely to signal the end of any last-ditch efforts by backbench peers to block the measure.
Government sources said Sir Edward represented "the third way in the Tory Party", between MPs who were opposed to the Bill and the Tories in the Lords who are preparing a compromise to allow 90 hereditary peers to continue until the long-term reform of the chamber after a Royal Commission chaired by the Tory peer Lord Wakeham.
Another former minister, Peter Mandelson, used his comeback in the Commons to claim he was "the lonely voice" who proposed to set up a Royal Commission on House of Lords reform. Mr Mandelson, who resigned in December, said a joint parliamentary committee on its own, as proposed in the Labour Party manifesto, might have been inward-looking.
"I was the lonely voice on the original cabinet committee urging the creation of a Royal Commission," he said. "I did so because I was concerned that to set up a joint parliamentary committee would result in rather incestuous and introspective proceedings."
He added that the joint parliamentary committee's work before the recommendations of the Royal Commission were published would have become a "playground for the Opposition".
Later, government sources expressed surprise at Mr Mandelson's remarks, saying proceedings in cabinet committees usually remained private.
Mr Mandelson defended the Government's decision not to reform the upper chamber all at once, saying it would have become "bogged down by the insistence that everything is clarified before we make any changes". He stressed a future upper chamber should not demote the Commons because this would lead to gridlock and constitutional stalemate, "damaging democracy rather than enhancing democracy".
Its functions should provide the "much needed glue" to keep Britain together at the time of devolution by reflecting the new regional structures. Similarly it should address the remoteness and lack of legitimacy of the political institutions of the European Union. "If we could create a link between national parliaments and the European Parliament, this would help to overcome that slight gulf that has opened up."
John Major, the former prime minister, seized upon Mr Mandelson's remarks. "Not since Satan denounced sin have I heard such a recantation as those remarks," he said. "Liberty needs protection from democracy and this government is tearing apart, piece by piece, Act by Act, the most sophisticated constitution of them all with little understanding of what they are doing."
He said the Prime Minister could improve accountability by submitting himself to Question Time in the Lords.Reuse content