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Tuesday, 16 January, 2001, 19:00 GMT
Long road to hunting ban
Hunt master
The last bugle?
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair is bracing himself for one of the most troublesome votes of his premiership.

After months of ducking and diving, he is finally going to have to decide whether his government should outlaw fox hunting.

It was one of the issues that helped define the pre-1997 New Labour Party.

However, it has since landed the prime minister with one of his greatest headaches.

At first he appeared to dismiss the issue as unimportant and not one for core Labour voters.

But, in the aftermath of poor local council election showings, he unexpectedly revived it in what was seen as an attempt to re-engage with traditional Labour supporters.

To the astonishment of most ordinary voters, and even some of his own ministers, he told TV viewers a ban was near the top of his political agenda.

Countryside Alliance
Demonstrations spooked Blair
His pronouncement was followed by months of confusion as home office ministers attempted to decipher his words and delay a vote they had not expected.

It also sparked mass demonstrations by the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance.

Multi-choice option

Clearly unnerved by the strength of the opposition, the prime minister set up an inquiry to investigate the possible effects of a ban on the rural economy - and delay legislation.

Finally, ministers came up with the "multi-choice" option which will be voted on in the Commons.

For many, this is the "stand up and be counted" vote, and they are eager to see Mr Blair in the lobbies alongside them.

The prime minister's official spokesman has insisted that Mr Blair will be in London for the crucial vote and will support a complete ban.

But he has also insisted that, like capital punishment and abortion, this is a"conscience vote" and not subject to a party whip.

And, in any case, it is probably irrelevant. The Lords are almost certain to kick the measure back to the Commons where it will stand no chance of getting a second hearing before the election.

So it will be up to the next government to decide whether to push the measure through.

But because it is an issue of personal conscience rather than party policy it may never make it into the next manifesto.

Mr Blair's spokesman has said there are no plans to commit the Labour Party to a ban in the run up to the general election.

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See also:

11 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Bragg battles for hunting reprieve
21 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Hunting Bill clears Commons hurdle
08 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Hunting bill unveiled
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