Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, was facing a growing rebellion last night over his party's commitment to replace the House of Lords with a mainly elected second chamber.
Senior MPs on the Conservative left and right said his plan for a senate-style upper house with 80 per cent of members elected would drive away high-calibre parliamentarians.
Their public criticism follows dismay in the party's 1922 Committee of MPs when the leadership floated the proposals. Sir Patrick Cormack, a former deputy shadow leader of the Commons, said he was surprised at the timing of the plans because Tory MPs had been told the proposals would not be made public too early. He added: "I am not happy with them. They are an intelligent and sensible contribution to an important debate but I don't myself like them.
"I believe if you move in the direction of a fully, or almost fully, elected House we will have to move in the direction of a written constitution, redistributing powers between the two chambers on a wholly different constitutional set-up from that which we now enjoy."
Gerald Howarth, from the party's Thatcherite right, said the Lords was "a repository of a great deal of wisdom – retired generals, practising lawyers, indeed retired politicians who have given up full-time politics, but still have something enormous to contribute." He said: "All that will be swept away because people like that will not stand for election."
Mr Howarth said an "increasing number" of Tory MPs were unhappy with the blueprint. The Tories envisage a 300-member assembly, with 60 members appointed by an independent commission and the rest elected by first-past-the-post from regional constituencies for up to 15 years .
The aim is to outflank Labour's proposal for a 600-member chamber, with 20 per cent elected, 20 per cent appointed by an independent commission and 60 per cent nominated by political parties.
A Tory spokesman said the party's policy – to be submitted in the consultation period on the government proposals for the second chamber – was fixed. He said the party was fully behind the plan, but refused to discuss how it had been agreed.
The Tory Leader of the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, said the proposals were "in the mainstream of public opinion". He said: "They are based on the principle of democracy and are intended to strengthen the House of Lords and Parliament as a whole."
Lord Strathclyde called for the Tory ideas to be presented to a joint, all-party committee of the Commons and Lords. "Unlike Labour we have no intention of trying to bulldoze our plans through Parliament."
In a sign that backbench unrest is by no means confined to the Opposition, the Conservative proposals won support from Graham Allen, a former Labour whip.
He said: "Iain Duncan Smith is more in line with the parliamentary heartbeat than the White Paper ... Government should step aside and let Parliament find a consensus."
The Government signalled a retreat last week after more than 120 Labour MPs demanded a largely elected second chamber.
Robin Cook, the Leader of the Commons, said ministers would come up with alternative proposals that he said would command a "centre of gravity" among MPs.
Tony Blair has rejected calls for a fully elected second chamber, describing them as a "recipe for gridlock".Reuse content