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Thursday, 7 December, 2000, 12:43 GMT
Hunting ban may fail
Hunting with hounds
Hunt ban is popular with Labour voters
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair's surprise pledge last year to ban fox hunting delighted many Labour supporters and anti-bloodsports activists.

His re-commitment to the measure in the Queen's speech will give them fresh hope that the sport will finally be outlawed within months. They shouldn't hold their breath.

What Mr Blair's backbench critics fear is that the issue has been raised simply as a good pre-election rallying point.

It will show that the prime minister is ready to take on the powerful countryside lobby.

And it will appeal directly to Labour's "heartland" voters.

But what is also virtually certain is that it still will not happen this side of the general election.

There is mounting evidence that the prime minister is ready to go to the country, as has long been expected, on 3 May next year.

Demonstration by the Countryside Alliance
Countryside lobby will march again
He has opened up his opinion poll rating over the Tories, William Hague failed to make real headway in the recent "Super Thursday" by-elections, and the government's slim legislative programme seems designed to allow an early poll.

Something must go

If things continue as they are, with the economy in good shape, the polls still in the government's favour and no unforeseen "events" erupting to upset the apple cart, there is little reason for the prime minister to wait.

So that leaves, in effect, only about 12 weeks to get his programme through. Something will have to go.

The fox hunting bill is already complicated by the fact that it allows three possible options, from a near total ban to self-regulation.

So the first disappointment for the "antis" could be a vote for greater regulation rather than a full-scale ban.

Next, following the free Commons vote which should come before Christmas, the policy has to be passed by the Lords. And that is far from a foregone conclusion.

The half-reformed House of Lords has shown itself only too willing to stymie the government on big issues.

And, despite the abolition of the vast majority of the hereditary peers, there is still a powerful pro-hunting lobby amongst peers.

So it is quite possible the Lords will kick the measure out, and the old ping-pong between the two Houses would then start up. But there would be virtually no time for it to get very far.

Lords to blame

All the betting in Westminster, therefore, is that there will be no ban before the general election.

This will further anger many Labour supporters, but Mr Blair will, legitimately this time, be able to claim it was the Lords who blocked it.

He tried the same excuse earlier in the parliament when backbencher Michael Foster's bill failed.

In fact it never got to the Lords but the government refused to make time for it in the Commons.

Mr Blair has always insisted that, had it got to the Lords they would have blocked it, so they were really to blame.

That cut little ice with anti-hunt campaigners and Mr Blair swiftly re-committed himself to a ban.

But that sparked mass demonstrations by the Countryside Alliance - and more are planned now.

But this time the prime minister, no doubt buoyed up by his victory over the fuel protesters, is ready to face them off.

And what is certain is that, even if the measure doesn't make it onto the statute books this parliament it will have to be included in Labour's election manifesto.

And if Labour wins the next election, as widely expected, then the anti-hunt campaigners will finally win the day.

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See also:

06 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Fresh chance of hunt ban
23 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Hunt bill by Christmas
07 Jul 00 | UK Politics
MPs debate hunt inquiry
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