Tories at war over Hague's `poison'

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THE ROW over the future of the House of Lords last night plunged the Conservatives into open civil war between Tory peers and William Hague.

The Tory bloodletting continued yesterday when Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, who resigned last week as deputy Tory leader of the Lords, accused Mr Hague's private office of trying to "poison the reputation" of his former boss, Viscount Cranborne, after Mr Hague sacked the Tory peer for negotiating with Mr Blair behind his back.

Lord Fraser, who resigned last week out of loyalty to Lord Cranborne, told The Independent last night that he had made his accusation on BBC television's Breakfast with Frost because he was aware that the Tory leadership was continuing to accuse Lord Cranborne of treachery. He was dismayed by attempts to justify the sacking. Weekend reports said that after seeing Mr Blair at Downing Street, Lord Cranborne met Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's chief spin doctor, last Monday to discuss the presentation of the deal.

"It's like saying he supped with the devil. He's not a friend of mine, but Alastair Campbell is not the devil incarnate," said Lord Fraser. "I am not interested in who Lord Cranborne negotiated with. The fact is he got a good deal."

Lord Fraser and other Tory peers believe the attacks on Lord Cranborne were intended to undermine the deal. But Tory peers made it plain to Mr Hague yesterday that their leader holds no sway with them. Lord St John of Fawsley, the former Tory leader of the Commons, and Lord Alexander of Weedon both put pressure on Mr Hague to accept openly the deal which will allow 91 hereditary peers to remain in the Lords until long-term reforms are brought in. "There can be no question of it not going ahead unless people behave with even greater stupidity than they have up until now," Lord St John told the BBC's On the Record programme.

Michael Ancram, the Tory party chairman, said Lord Cranborne's deal could not be accepted because it implied dropping opposition to Government Bills. But there is now growing evidence that Tory peers, behind their new leader, Lord Strathclyde, will ignore Mr Hague and support the deal when it is moved as an amendment to the Lords Reform Bill early in the New Year.

The Government had hoped to bring the Bill into the Commons before Christmas.

Downing Street said that the Government is seeking to create an extra 55 life peers to compensate Labour for the deal in which 91 hereditary peers would be allowed to keep their seats. "We ...reckon that to keep roughly in line with the Tories, we would need an extra 55 life peers," said a source.

The move could open Mr Blair to accusations of flooding the Lords with new life peers, but the sources said that even with the extra peers the Government would still not command a majority.