Tories rush to keep Queen out of council house

Cabinet ministers lined up yesterday to condemn the idea of a slimmed-down monarchy as suggested by Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, as part of Labour's plans for constitutional change.

Michael Howard, Stephen Dorrell, Michael Portillo, David Hunt and John Redwood all took to the airwaves or made speeches accusing Mr Straw of variously ''playing with fire'', ''neutering our nationhood'', or planning to reduce the monarchy to ''a queen in a council house''.

MPs mostly lined up behind their parties when 64 were contacted by the Independent and asked if they believed ''a smaller, more modern Royal Family would help safeguard the monarchy's future''. Eighteen Conservatives said ''no'', only four ''yes''. Among Labour MPs, 28 believed it would help; five said it would not. All nine Liberal Democrat MPs said ''yes''.

In the ministerial onslaught, Mr Howard, the Home Secretary, said there was a ''sinister hidden agenda'' which would ''break up the Britain we know''. He said Labour wanted a ''Europe of the regions'' with power handed to Brussels and regional government within Britain. That required a down-grading of the monarchy. Mr Straw accused Mr Howard of ''fantasies and a lie''.

Tony Blair's office remained cool in the face of a storm whose ferocity initially took Labour aback. Mr Blair's aides indicated Mr Straw had the Labour leader's full backing for proposals to exclude hereditary peers from voting in the Lords and for redefining the Royal Prerogative - a package Mr Blair constructed when shadow Home Secretary - while Mr Straw's suggestion that the number of members of the Royal Family performing official duties might fall to five or six was seen as a matter for debate, not party policy.

Lord Richard, Labour's leader in the Lords, accused ministers of ''hysteria'' and creating ''a splendid diversion'' from their own difficulties.

Who would lose, page 3

Inside Parliament, page 9

Bryan Appleyard, page 17