Ed Miliband threw a lifeline to Nick Clegg's sweeping plans for a mainly elected House of Lords yesterday by promising to force them through the Commons.
The Labour leader announced that the Opposition would support the Bill to reform the second chamber next month, on its second reading. Although Labour will vote against the Government's immediate attempt to cut short debate on the measure, it will back ministers when they call Commons votes to prevent rebel Conservative MPs "talking out" the Bill by making marathon speeches.
Mr Miliband's decision is a setback for Tory rebels, who had hoped to join forces with Labour to "kill the Bill" in the Commons. After an internal Labour debate, the Opposition leader, below, decided to put support for Lords reform ahead of the chance to scupper Mr Clegg's flagship proposal.
The Cabinet yesterday approved the plans, despite reservations among some Conservative ministers, including Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary. Between 50 and 100 Tory backbenchers oppose the shake-up and several parliamentary aides to ministers are threatening to resign.
Today, Mr Clegg will publish his Bill to replace the 800-strong, all-appointed Lords with a 450-member, 80 per cent elected House, with the first peers elected at the 2015 General Election and the final tranche in 2025. They would serve 15-year terms and,like MEPs, represent regions so they did not rival MPs in constituencies. The supremacy of the Commons would be enshrined in the Bill.
Mr Miliband's intervention improves Mr Clegg's chances of progress. But the Bill will still face a huge hurdle in the Lords, where many peers – including Labour representatives – will refuse to vote themselves out of a job.
Downing Street said that the Government would, if necessary, invoke the Parliament Act, which allows the Commons to override the Lords. But it remains to be seen whether David Cameron will want Lords reform to clog up Parliament for two years when it hardly tops the public's list of priorities.
Last night, Liberal Democrats accused Mr Miliband of trying to "have it both ways". They said that if Labour was a "serious, principled, progressive party" it would support the Government in the vote on the Bill's timetable. Liberal Democrat sources warned that Labour's failure to do so would make the Bill's passage "extremely difficult".
However, Mr Miliband faces a rebellion in his own ranks over his decision to ensure the measure passes the Commons. At a heated meeting of Labour MPs and peers, senior figures who criticised his stance included former ministers David Blunkett, who said he would vote against Labour for the first time in 25 years as an MP, Sir Gerald Kaufman and Paul Murphy. Others who want to oppose the Bill include Margaret Beckett and Nick Brown.
Mr Miliband said: "We face a clear choice: to vote down reform, or to back it. We will support reform." A Labour source added: "We give this guarantee: when the crunch comes, we will not be the party which delays this Bill going through the Commons."
Labour will demand about 20 days of debate on the Bill in the Commons and a referendum. Ministers may allow more debate but Mr Cameron will not grant a referendum, as it would put him under immense pressure to allow one on Europe too.
Tory rebels vowed to press ahead with plans to defeat the timetable motion. Tory whips have privately threatened to keep the Commons sitting through August in an attempt to limit the revolt.