Government plans to reform the House of Lords may fall at the first hurdle after MPs threatened a rebellion.
Jack Straw, Leader of the Commons, has angered backbenchers by proposing an unusual voting system in an attempt to break the deadlock over the future of the Lords. Under his plan, MPs would list seven options for change in order of preference and the ballot would be completed under a transferable vote system. He hopes to avoid a repeat of the fiasco three years ago when MPs voted against all five reform options before them. But it emerged yesterday as Mr Straw answered MPs' questions on his plans for a half-elected, half-appointed Lords that the proposed voting system could be defeated, leaving the reforms in disarray. Some Labour backbenchers warned that if the voting system remained they would defy a three-line whip even though they backed reform.
George Howarth, a former Home Office minister, said many MPs wanted the opportunity to vote against options they opposed as well as for those that they supported. Eight Labour and Tory MPs tabled a Commons motion describing the voting system as "inappropriate". In an attempt to placate MPs, Mr Straw may schedule a vote on removing the 91 hereditary peers from the second chamber before that on the Lords' composition as many Labour MPs want the hereditaries to lose their right to sit and vote in the House. But his first priority is to survive a Commons vote later this month on the options ballot.
Last night Mr Straw hinted that he might be prepared to amend his preferential voting system in order to prevent a humiliating defeat for his White Paper blueprint. Acknowledging the strong feelings in the Commons yesterday, he said: "I am in listening mode on this. I could hardly avoid hearing what was said. I am digesting what was said."
Mr Straw has proposed a ballot in which MPs would list seven options - ranging from a fully elected to a fully appointed second chamber - in order of preference. If no option received an overall majority in the first round, there would be a series of further counts in which the option which came last was eliminated and the votes redistributed until one option gained more than 50 per cent. The winning proposal would go forward to the Lords as the view of the Commons without a natural majority.
David Clelland, Labour MP for Tyne Bridge, demanded a referendum on the make-up of the Lords. "Let the question be: 'Do you want another 270 elected politicians? Yes or No'."
Gordon Brown, who is likely to succeed Tony Blair as prime minister, is expected to vote for a fully-elected second chamber. But the Lords could reject any proposals approved by the Commons and Mr Brown is wary about allowing a clash between the two Houses dominating his initial period in power.
He may therefore opt to include a more specific reform pledge in Labour's manifesto at the next general election, which would then allow the party to use the Parliament Act to override the peers' objections if it retained power.