Secret Tory plot to sabotage Blair

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WILLIAM HAGUE has secretly ordered Tory peers to adopt a "zero- tolerance" policy towards all government legislation, including its plan to abolish the rights of hereditary peers.

The edict, in a Conservative Party document leaked to The Independent, embarrassed the leadership. Labour and the Liberal Democrats said Mr Hague had been "caught red-handed" waging "guerrilla warfare" against the Government in the Lords. It showed he planned to derail other measures to fight Tony Blair's plans to end the right of the 750 hereditaries to speak and vote in the second chamber. The official Tory line is to oppose the measure because the Government has not set out its plans for wider reform of the Lords, including a democratically elected element.

But the briefing note on theQueen's Speech, sent to peers and MPs by Conservative Central Office, suggests Mr Hague will mobilise his big majority in the Lords to cause maximum disruption to the Government in the coming parliamentary year. The Tories have 471 peers, including 300 hereditaries, to Labour's 166, who include 18 who inherited their titles.

The document says: "We are sure the Lords will not obstruct legislation for the sake of it - but, in the face of an overbearing government, we would not be surprised if peers adopted a policy of 'zero tolerance' towards bad legislation. They would have our backing if they did." Ministers accused Mr Hague of "going to the wall" to preserve the 900-year-old rights of the unelected earls, dukes and viscounts. Baroness Jay, Leader of the Lords, said: "If William Hague and the Tories are prepared to die in the ditch for the Tory hereditaries, they will move themselves even further from an electorate which resoundingly rejected them at the last election."

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the document showed Mr Hague was using the Lords to launch "a war of attrition" against the Government's programme. In Parliament's House Magazine he said: "Mr Hague has, sadly, encouraged the Conservative Party in the Lords to ride roughshod over the usual conventions, and by doing so he has led his troops up a suicidal cul-de-sac."

The Tories denied they intended to sabotage the Bill on hereditary peers. The leaked document made clear they would abide by the Salisbury Convention, under which the Lords does not vote against measures in the election manifesto of the winning party. But this would not stop them delaying the Bill by tabling hundreds of amendments. A Tory spokesman said: "It is not the job of the Opposition to acquiesce with a government that is vandalising our constitution. If Labour thinks the Conservative Party will allow it to do something that runs counter to the interests of the British public, it is even more arrogant than we thought." He said the Tories had offered to enter talks with the Government on a coherent set of wider reforms to the second chamber but had been rebuffed by ministers.

The document emerged as Labour and the Tories prepared for a new battle over the powers of the Lords next week. Margaret Beckett, Leader of the Commons, yesterday said the Bill to bring in proportional representation for June's elections to the European Parliament would be rushed through the Commons next Wednesday. It would then be sent to the Lords, which scuppered the measure in the last parliamentary session by rejecting it on five occasions. Last night Tory sources said the Opposition would not co-operate with the Bill because it would allow people to vote only for a party and not individual candidates. The Tories would table amendments allowing voters to support individuals.

The continuing Tory fight against the measure means it is unlikely to become law by January - the deadline set by ministers. This would mean the June elections being fought under the existing first-past-the-post system.