The age of the triple-barrelled Labour Lord

It was the moment when the classless society finally arrived in Britain. Alastair Campbell, press secretary to Tony Blair, could not contain his laughter last night as he read out a list of new life peers and their party affiliations.

"Richard Gerald Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, Baron Acton - Labour." Guffaws from the assembled Westminster journalists. "Anthony Fitzhardinge Gueterbock, Baron Berkeley, OBE - Labour." More laughter.

But the new peers with more prosaic names, such as plain, self-made Michael Ashcroft and Robin Hodgson, were Conservatives.

Perhaps someone had got their wires crossed. After all, Baron Berkeley was described in a Downing Street press release as chairman of the "Piggybank Consortium". Surely this was the group Mr Ashcroft used to fund the Conservatives?

Labour's two barons are among six former hereditaries who were brought "back from the dead" only four months after the hereditary peers passed into oblivion.

The other former members who can now return to the best club in London are Labour's Viscount Chandos and Baron Grenfell and two Liberal Democrats - the Earl of Mar and Baron Redesdale.

But the classless society had its limits and there was no life after death for the massed ranks of 300 Tory hereditary peers who were cast into the wilderness last November.

The Tories are granted only four new working peers in the list announced today, compared to 20 for Labour and nine for the Lib Dems. The new working peers were created to help Labour close the gap between it and the Tories in the so-called "interim House of Lords" which will exist until Labour goes ahead with stage two of its reforms of the second chamber.

But even after today's appointments, the Conservatives will have 236 peers compared to Labour's 202, the Lib Dems' 63, 161 crossbenchers and 26 bishops and archbishops.

Mr Blair may therefore be tempted to announce another list of working peers by the summer, which might help him to secure the abolition of Section 28 through a reluctant Upper House.

Apart from the controversial Mr Ashcroft, the best known name on today's list of new peers is Sebastian Coe, the former Olympic gold and silver medallist and world record holder, who is private secretary and judo partner to William Hague. Mr Coe had given up running again for the Commons after losing his Falmouth and Camborne seat at the 1997 general election.

In a rather uninspiring list of new peers, some colour was provided by the presence of Tony Greaves, a fully paid-up member of the "beard and sandals brigade" who used to cause mayhem for the Liberal leadership at party conferences before the party merged with the SDP and became respectably boring.

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