The Government was plunged into a constitutional crisis when the House of Lords voted to halt a Bill establishing a supreme court and refer it to a special committee for further scrutiny.
A coalition of Tory and cross-bench peers votedlast night to scupper plans to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor, establish an independent judicial appointments commission and remove the law lords from the House of Lords.
In dramatic Parliamentary scenes, peers overruled the will of ministers and voted to delay a crucial part of the Government's programme.
The vote, being seen as an attempt to wreck the entire Bill, is a major setback for Tony Blair and may lead to a brutal showdown with the House of Lords.
Baroness Amos, the leader of the House of Lords, told peers: "This House has taken a very serious step. By this vote, this House the unelected House has made it impossible for the democratically elected House of Commons to receive this Bill, promised in the Queen's Speech in November, in time to consider it this session. That is very serious indeed, and the Government will consider what the consequences may be."
Ministers will now consider invoking the Parliament Act, a little-used procedural device to push the Bill past the House of Lords and on to the statute book.
Late last night peers voted by 216 to 183 a majority of 33 in favour of an amendment put down by Lord Lloyd of Berwick, a former law lord, to have the Bill referred to a select committee.
Lord Lloyd said the Bill was "a pig in a poke" as he urged peers to refer it to the special committee for further debate.
He said: "This Bill was an obvious candidate for pre-legislative scrutiny, all the more so because the Constitutional Affairs Committee made a strong recommendation that the Bill should be published in draft form so there could be proper scrutiny of what they called fundamental changes."
Lord Kingsland, for the Tories, said the Bill "confirmed our worst suspicions about the Government's constitutional ambitions".
The Liberal Democrats, who supported the Government, promised to do all they could to rescue parts of the Bill after the vote was lost.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, had said that the proposal could wreck the reforms and would exceed the traditional boundaries of the House of Lords. He accused the Conservatives of "political mischief-making" and urged peers to consider the "points of principle" contained in the Bill.
Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, repeated threats to introduce the reforms in the Commons and use the Parliament Act to override the House of Lords.
Opening a nine-hour debate on the proposals, Lord Falconer had warned peers not to thwart the authority of the elected House of Commons. He said: "We believe this Bill should be considered by this House and then passed to the other House for consideration during this parliamentary session. That is how our democracy works. In a constitutional change of this importance, proper scrutiny of the Bill is vital. That it should be considered by the elected chamber is, however, the foundation of our democracy. This House has almost always accepted this. Our role is to scrutinise and advise. To prevent the House of Commons even looking at the Bill is to break that approach.
"The effect of the amendment is that this Bill will certainly not be passed by Parliament during this session and it may never be considered by Parliament."
The plans to set up a supreme court were last week attacked by Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, and have also run into determined opposition from judges and barristers.
But yesterday Lord Woolf, the country's most senior judge, appeared to make a plea to peers not to wreck the Bill. He said would be "very concerned" if the Bill was not ultimately passed. "My own opinion is that delay is something that can be accommodated and would not affect the independence of the judiciary," he said. "But I would be very concerned if this Bill were not passed and we were left with the present situation with regard to the appointment, disciplining of judges and the great many I think there are 700 other matters which are the subject of the agreement which was reached in the concordat."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies