Cabinet split over elected Lords as 'old guard' rebels

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Tony Blair is facing a rebellion by senior cabinet ministers against plans for most members of the House of Lords to be directly elected by the public.

The Prime Minister, who in the past has opposed a "hybrid" second chamber that was partly elected and partly appointed, is warming to the idea of 70 per cent of its members being chosen by the voters.

But a cabinet split has broken out between "old guard" ministers, who want to preserve the supremacy of the wholly elected Commons, and more junior members who are pressing for reform. "It's the old guard against the younger ones," said one Blair aide.

Opponents include John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister; Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary; John Reid, the Defence Secretary; Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary; and Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip. Ministers keen on a largely elected second chamber include Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor; Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary; Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary; Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary; Baroness Amos, the Leader of the Lords; and Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland and Wales Secretary.

The Lords reform moves began before the "cash-for-honours" scandal erupted but were seen by supporters as a way to limit the fall-out from it. But the split in the Cabinet could delay the free vote in the Commons promised in the Labour manifesto at last year's election. Some Blair allies are urging the Prime Minister to drop Lords reform because there will be "no votes" in what is seen as a "chattering-class" issue. They want him to focus on "bread-and-butter" issues like health, education and pensions before he stands down.

The allies fear the reform plans would get bogged down in Parliament. Although the Commons could vote for a 70 per cent elected second chamber, there is no guarantee that legislation would be approved by the Lords. Many of Labour's 203 life peers oppose reform, fearing it would put them out of a job. Mr Blair said yesterday he was "marginally more open-minded" on the creation of a largely elected Lords than previously but hinted at behind-the-scenes problems.

He also defended the award of honours to wealthy individuals who hade provided financial support for his flagship city academy schools. He said they had provided "money, time, effort, energy and years of hard work".