The issue has become buried beneath the Home Office demand for judge-only trials in cases where the authorities believe there is a risk of attempted jury intimidation.
Blunkett has signalled his determination to risk the whole Criminal Justice Bill if he cannot persuade peers to accept the reversal of their decision to keep jury trials when the Bill comes up in the Commons in September or October.
The issue could then escalate into a major constitutional crisis with the government threatening to axe the remaining 100 or so hereditary aristocrats retained under a deal with the Tories over the interim modernisation of the upper chamber.
The Conservatives will be keen to stress the Lords’ role of acting as a bulwark in defence of civil liberties – in this case, the right to a trial by jury, widely accepted and trusted by the public for 800 years.
The 210 to 136 vote defeat for the clause restricting the right to trial by jury just before parliament rose for the summer recess and the government has a seven-week cooling-off period while Blunkett and Tony Blair – whose official spokesman has twice made it clear Downing Street wants the Bill in its entirety – reconsider their position.
Former Tory cabinet minister Lord Hunt said jury trials were fundamental to democracy, preventing justice becoming an issue where the state judged the citizen.
Treated in isolation, the issue is whether the government is prepared to delay the Bill by a year in order to use the Parliament Act to force it through the upper House.
But the position will be further clouded by the Lords’ opposition to the ban on hunting and the creation of foundation hospitals and by the government’s failure to find a consensus basis for the second stage of the reform of the upper chamber.
Blair’s own ability to support Blunkett is itself threatened by the political crisis surrounding the suicide of defence scientist Dr David Kelly.
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