Tony Blair has rejected a Tory blueprint for a radical shake-up of the House of Lords that would see 80 per cent of its members directly elected by the public.
The Government wants only 20 per cent of the Lords to be elected and, with no agreement in sight, the Prime Minister may shelve or even scrap the planned reforms of the second chamber. As drafted, his proposed changes would be unlikely to get through Parliament.
With many Labour MPs calling for a mainly elected Lords, the Tories claimed their plan would win the support of the House of Commons. The Tory proposals, unveiled yesterday, were deliberately aimed at outflanking the Government and fuelling the Labour rebellion. The Conservatives would create a "senate" with 300 members, half the number proposed by Labour. Some 240 of them would be elected in 80 county-wide constituencies and serve for 15 years, to free them from threats of deselection. The other 60 would be nominated by an independent appointments commission "answerable to Parliament, not Downing Street".
Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, said 60 per cent of Labour peers owed their seats to Mr Blair's patronage. "I do not want an incoming Conservative government to become corrupted in the same way by this web of cronyism," he said.
Last week Robin Cook, the Leader of the Commons, admitted the Government would have to revise its proposals, but yesterday Mr Blair appeared to take a harder line.
Mr Cook told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme that the Tories had not thought through their plan, warning that the second chamber would replicate the Commons. "That's just a recipe for gridlock," he said. He said the Lords should include people who had not spent all their lives as full-time politicians.
Mr Blair said: "The difficulty with this is that as many as there are people there are different proposals on the House of Lords."
Andrew Tyrie, the Tory MP for Chichester, said Mr Duncan Smith's plan "marks a sea change in the modernisation of the party". He said: "There is now a large majority in the House of Commons, and in the country, for a mainly elected second chamber and, even more importantly, a willingness to compromise on the detail."
Mr Cook accused the Conservatives of "shallow opportunism" and "hypocrisy of the highest order". He said: "For a century they have been the champions of hereditary peers. It takes real brass neck for the Conservative Party now to pose as the supporter of a democratic House of Lords."
Mr Duncan Smith is facing a rebellion in his own party over his strategy. Some Tory MPs and peers described it as "a bolt from the blue" that ignored their opposition to an elected upper house. Tory MPs criticised the plan at last week's meeting of the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, and some have written to Mr Duncan Smith opposing it.
One Tory source said: "If he has done this to cause short-term embarrassment to the Labour Party, that is one thing. But he is also bouncing his own party into a policy with which large sections of it will be profoundly unhappy."