LONDON Facing its first major parliamentary defeat, the coalition government on Tuesday at the last minute dropped plans for a controversial vote on reforming parliament's unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords.
The government seemed set to lose the vote after scores of MPs within Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party threatened to rebel over the plan to make the Lords a mostly elected, rather than appointed, chamber.
On Tuesday evening, however, the government won a separate vote on the principle behind a mainly elected chamber with a majority of 338. Some 91 Conservative Party MPs voted against the bill as a whole.
The vote means that proposals for an 80 percent elected House of Lords, reducing its current size from 826 members to 450, will proceed to their next stage of parliamentary scrutiny in the autumn.
The reforms are a key plank in the coalition deal between the Conservative Party and its Liberal Democrat partner and defeat at the hands of Conservative MPs would have been a huge blow to the Lib Dems and the coalition government.
Drawing out the debate could foment further dissent within the Conservative Party over the issue and erode the glue that keeps the coalition government together.
Only hours earlier, Cameron made a last ditch appeal to the opposition Labour Party to back the legislative timetable, which the government then dropped.
"Even at this late stage I would appeal to them, don't play the opportunistic card, don't play politics with this issue, vote for what you say you want, which is a reform of the House of Lords," Cameron said.
SCARLET ROBES AND ERMINE
Peers review laws and scrutinise the work of the government. The queen appoints members on advice from the prime minister, although some inherit the role and some seats are reserved for members of the clergy.
The government wants to cut membership of Lords to 450 by 2025, and make 80 percent of the chamber's seats elected for non-renewable 15-year terms, with the rest appointed by an independent committee on the basis of particular expertise.
The Lib Dems and others say that an appointed upper chamber of parliament is undemocratic and that its aristocratic and privileged membership, resplendent in their scarlet robes fringed with ermine fur, is an anachronism.
Conservative rebels argue that elected Lords would be more partisan and undermine the primacy of parliament's lower chamber, creating legislative gridlock. They also fear an elected chamber would lack diversity and specialist expertise.
Labour, which says it supports the reforms, said it would vote against the proposed timetable for legislation on the grounds that more time was needed for the debate.
"A plague on both their houses. Labour have frankly messed about on this ... What we want now in the next two months is to gather support across the coalition benches, that's the idea of this, not to change the legislation," a Lib Dem source said.
"When the leader of the Conservative Party, the prime minister says, we need a bit more time, we can deliver this vote, then you listen to that," the source added.
MP George Young, who arranges government business in parliament, said the issue of timetabling Lords legislation would be moved to the autumn.
A Labour source said the climbdown was a "victory" for parliament and the party would now push for the Lords reforms to be considered by a parliamentary committee.
"This is a major constitutional change which poses serious questions, so it needs a proper debate," the source said.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Mangan. Editing by Alison Williams and Christopher Wilson)