Peers have suggested a rich Tory should give up their ministerial salary to make space in cabinet for the new leader of the House of Lords, who has been nicknamed Baroness Beyoncé over her claims she is an "independent woman and a single lady" with no need for the same status and pay as her predecessor.
Lady Stowell of Beeston is at the centre of a controversy over her government role, after the prime minister said she would just be allowed to attend meetings without having the higher rank of full cabinet member.
It marks the first time in history there has been no representation by a peer in the cabinet and means she is being paid around £22,000 less than her predecessor, Lord Hill, for doing exactly the same job.
On Monday night, peers overwhelming voted in favour of a motion of "regret" berating the prime minister for their lack of presence at the heart of government.
Lady Boothroyd, the former speaker of the house, said the situation was a sign of dangerous times and amounted to trampling on the constitution.
"It breaks the mould of British history. It strikes at the very roots of our bicameral parliament. The place of this house in the cabinet of every prime minister has never been challenged until now," she said.
"I never thought I would witness such careless disregard for the way our constitution works. The prime minister's exclusion of the noble lady … from full cabinet status has rightly shocked all parts of the house."
As part of the debate, Lord Butler, the former head of the civil service, said one solution would be for another existing cabinet minister to give up their pay.
"It would be possible– indeed, it has often happened in the past – for ministers who are members of the cabinet to choose not to take their salary," he said.
"I do not think that it would be unreasonable to ask that one of the present members of the cabinet for the next 10 months should forego their salary, so that the leader of our house can be a member of the cabinet. I hope that it is not invidious to say that I think that there are members of the cabinet who could afford to do that. Indeed, they might simply be anticipating the position that they will be in anyway in 10 months' time."
However, Stowell brushed off concerns about her lower official status, saying nothing would stop her from doing her job in the same way as Hill.
"I am leader of this house. While my Lords may be concerned about my ministerial rank, nothing changes that simple fact. Nothing has changed in practice … I will do the job of leader in exactly the same way as all my predecessors.
"I'm an independent woman and a single lady. My noble Lords might want to think of me as the Beyoncé of your lordships' house."
The government appears to have been taken by surprise over the strength of feeling in the lords about the downgrading of the role of their leader.
On Monday, a spokesman for David Cameron said: "The prime minister has just carried out a ministerial reshuffle. He recognises and understands the concerns that have been raised. He wants to rectify it at the earliest opportunity, certainly immediately after the general election, if he's returned as prime minister, if no opportunity has arisen to do so over the coming nine months."
The prime minister wrote to peers last week saying the measure was a purely temporary one. He said as a general rule the Lords should be represented in the cabinet and stressed that Stowell would have the same right to speak in cabinet as her predecessor.
Initially, the Conservatives tried to get round the issue of Stowell's pay by saying the party would top it up. However, Stowell turned down this offer, amid concerns that it would not be appropriate to have a minister's salary part-funded by private donations from individuals and businesses.
Boothroyd said this suggestion had always been a "bizarre proposition".
"Did the prime minister really expect the leader of this House to accept the offer to top up her pay by a subsidy from Conservative party funds?" she said. "The prime minister I'm afraid pays scant attention to his responsibility towards this house. He fails to understand that we are a bicameral parliament and as such this house should be fully represented at the highest level of government.
"He has trampled on the constitution. He has discarded the principle of equal pay at the same time, quite frankly."
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