Labour set to throw beleaguered Clegg a Lords reform lifeline

Miliband's change of heart will save Liberal Democrat leader from humiliating defeat
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Labour will throw Nick Clegg a lifeline over his trouble-hit plans for an elected House of Lords, which have run into opposition from all three main parties.

Until now, Ed Miliband has refused to endorse the Deputy Prime Minister's blueprint for 80 per cent of the second chamber to be elected on the grounds that Labour supported a wholly-elected Lords at the 2010 election and a referendum on the issue. Labour's hostility led to growing fears among the Liberal Democrats that Mr Clegg's historic shake-up would fall at its first hurdle by being defeated in the Commons by a rebellion by Tory backbenchers and Labour's refusal to support his Bill.

In an important change of heart, Labour will now whip its MPs to ensure that the measure is passed by the Commons, where it will start its passage in the new Parliamentary session starting this spring before being debated by the House of Lords. "We will show some flexibility to make sure the Bill gets to the Lords," one Labour source said yesterday. "We will not die in the ditch for a 100 per cent elected House or a referendum."

Labour's switch will bring some relief to Mr Clegg, as it should lift the threat of him suffering a humiliating defeat in the Commons. However, Labour's decision is not as generous as it looks. Mr Miliband is making no commitment to help Mr Clegg force his controversial Bill through the Lords, where many Labour peers are already queuing up to oppose it. If the Labour leader does not come to the aid of Mr Clegg there, he may be accused of opportunism in allowing the Bill to pass the Commons so that it becomes bogged down in the Lords, as many peers refuse to vote themselves out of a job – including some Liberal Democrats.

Although Lords reform is in the Coalition Agreement struck in 2010, there are doubts over whether David Cameron will "go to the wire" and allow an issue of little interest to most voters to dominate Parliament for up to two years.

Mr Clegg told a committee of MPs and peers on Monday that the shake-up is a "clear ambition" for the Government. He indicated that MPs would be whipped to support the legislation like "any other Government business", and cited the Prime Minister's support for using the Parliament Act to override the opposition in the Lords.

However, some senior Tories doubt that Mr Clegg's full plan will become law before the next election in 2015. There is growing speculation that the Bill will be blocked or the Government will settle for a small proportion of peers to be elected, with agreement to revisit the issue in a future parliament.

One Tory source said: "Nick Clegg is determined to push ahead with this. He sees it as his legacy after 100 years of failed attempts to reform the Lords. We have tried to talk him out of it. He knows it won't impress the man in the pub but he believes it is a scandal that the second chamber is appointed."

Yesterday Lord Dobbs, a former Conservative Party deputy chairman, warned: "Some of my fellow peers have threatened to become unwavering rebels and wreck the government's legislative programme if the threatened miserable mess of potage is served up in the Queen's Speech."

The Tory peer insisted the Coalition Agreement committed the Government only to bring forward proposals on Lords reform: "Nowhere does it talk about a strict timetable for legislation or using the muscle of the whips to force proposals through."