Tories In Turmoil: Benn hits at Blair's tactics on Lords

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR came under fire from some Labour MPs last night over the surprise U-turn in which he agreed to reprieve 91 hereditary peers.

Although the crisis in the Tory party over the compromised plan for Lords reform overshadowed Mr Blair's tactical retreat, left-wing MPs claimed the Prime Minister has breached the party's manifesto commitment to scrap the right of all 750 hereditary peers to sit and vote in the second chamber.

Tony Benn, the MP for Chesterfield, warned that the Government might never proceed with full-scale reform of the Lords and could allow the temporary reprieve of the 91 hereditaries to become permanent. He also suggested that Mr Blair had struck the deal in order to preserve his "enormous powers of patronage" over the appointment of peers. "The Prime Minister gets what he wants - the right to appoint batches of peers," Mr Benn said.

"To imagine that there would ever be another stage [of reform] after this is wildly optimistic. I think it would be intended to last for a very long time. I imagine they intend it to be permanent. The 91 peers who survive will not want to go and the Prime Minister would do anything rather than give up his power of patronage."

Mr Benn said the whole affair would look different once the dust had settled. "When you forget all the clever tactical tricks of embarrassing Hague and looking brilliant, and when you look beneath the surface, this is another action to protect an unelected House of Lords," he said.

Gordon Prentice, Labour MP for Pendle, said the hereditary peers should have been removed from the Lords in one go. "We had absolutely no idea about it. It would have been nice to have been told," he said.

Another Labour MP, normally loyal to Mr Blair, said the 91 hereditaries would remain as life peers when "stage two" of the Lords reform went ahead. "I don't think that will go down very well on the Labour benches; it would be seen as a backdoor attempt to keep alive the hereditaries," he said.

But other Labour MPs were content to enjoy Mr Hague's discomfort. "They are whooping with joy at every twist and turn," said one minister.

Downing Street insisted that the consensus agreement brokered by crossbench peers, Lord Cranborne and the Government would speed up rather than delay "stage two" of Lords reform, which is expected to turn it into a partly- elected chamber.

"The manifesto commitment will be honoured," said one Government source.

Ministers said the legislation could be on the statute book before the next general election, although some senior Liberal Democrats believe a more likely timescale would involve Labour and the Lib Dems putting their blueprint for reform into the manifestos at the next election.

Mr Blair is keen to convince the sceptics that he is serious about "stage two" of Lords reform; he knows showing such intent would ease the passage of the bill on hereditary peers through the second chamber.

Yesterday ministers sped the process up by ordering officials to see whether the Lords reform programme could be brought forward.

The Royal Commission, which is to look at options for "stage two" and which will be set up early in the new year, will have a tight timetable; it will probably report in just one year, rather than the two years originally envisaged.