The Government's plans to remove the 92 hereditary peers from the House of Lords are in disarray and may struggle to become law during the current session of Parliament.
The problem has been caused by a mistake in drafting the legislation, which forced publication of the Bill to be scrapped before its scheduled launch last Friday. It emerged yesterday that cabinet ministers were horrified to discover that officials drawing up the measure had failed to make it "fireproof" to amendments from MPs who want to see the second chamber directly elected by the voters.
Parliamentary counsel have warned that it could take three months to redraft the measure.
Downing Street may try to speed up the process amid fears that the Government may not secure the House of Lords Bill's passage before the session ends in November. It faces a stormy passage through the Lords, where it will be opposed by the Tories, Liberal Democrats and the 92 hereditaries who survived when most of those who inherited their titles were removed before the last general election.
The other option is for the Government to publish the Bill as currently drafted, which would mean that MPs who want an elected second chamber would be able to amend it.
This would risk a repeat of the events of February last year, when all the options for an elected or partly elected Upper House were voted down. But there is no guarantee that Tony Blair's opposition to elected peers would prevail, since a proposal for an 80 per cent elected House lost by only three votes and a wholly-elected chamber was defeated by 17 votes.
On Friday, Downing Street insisted there was nothing untoward about the delay, saying merely that the measure was still being drafted. But behind the scenes, the Government was holding an inquest into what one insider called "a monumental cock-up".
The Bill would also create an independent Appointments Commission, which would nominate and appoint members of the second chamber.
The Tories would see their voting strength in the Lords cut by a fifth if the hereditaries lose their right to sit and vote. They and the Liberal Democrats oppose the Bill on the grounds that the Government has broken a pledge to bring forward wider reform of the second chamber before ousting the hereditaries.
Plans have been floated by Labour for some peers to be "indirectly elected" in proportion to the votes cast at a general election.Reuse content