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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 13:44 GMT
Victory for backbench power?
Government has denied making a deal over hunting

The first time Tony Blair surprised everyone with promises to outlaw hunting he had just suffered disastrous local election results.

It came during the last parliament as the 1997 general election euphoria evaporated with the government facing growing accusations that it was out of touch with its grassroots and that disillusion had set in.

The prime minister was put on the spot over his troubles during a TV interview and suddenly announced there would be moves to ban hunting very soon.

Attention has moved away from Byers
Attention immediately switched away from the government's woes and everybody was talking about fox hunting.

Now, just as the prime minister is embroiled in the Stephen Byers row and polls suggest public satisfaction with the government has dropped sharply as a result, he has done it again.

The Commons is to be given yet another vote amid speculation that, this time, a ban could be in force well before the next general election.

Backbench campaign

There are two competing theories about why the government - and, in this instance that really does mean Tony Blair - has sprung this surprise.

On the one hand it is being seen as payback to the backbenchers who so loyally supported Mr Byers and the prime minister over the Sixsmith affair.

That has been absolutely denied by ministers.

A Scottish ban boosted pressure
The alternative view is that the prime minister and party chairman Charles Clarke have been subjected to a concerted campaign by backbenchers to finally honour the election pledge and allow a vote on the issue.

Fox hunting is certainly an issue that is raised at virtually every meeting between Mr Blair or Mr Clarke and backbenchers. The recent vote in the Scottish parliament only added to that pressure.

So it may well be that the prime minister has finally decided to shut his troublesome troops up by grasping the nettle.

In other words, this was a victory for backbench power.

Big risks

There is, of course, no reason why both these theories could not be true.

It is being denied by Downing Street, but these are exactly the sort of deals governments do in times of trouble - some would even say it is a perfectly legitimate part of parliamentary democracy.

But, whatever the motivation, this move still carries significant risks.

The competing sides of the argument have shown their willingness to take to the streets over the issue and it is bound to land the government in another battle with the Lords.

That could see the proposed legislation - which, despite previous votes, still has to start from scratch - getting seriously bogged down in another game of ping pong between the two houses of parliament.

Charitable view

And that could prove a serious distraction from the business of sorting out the nation's public services, which the prime minister insists is his top priority.

So, once again, it seems optimistic to expect hunting will be banned before the next election.

Even backbenchers who take the charitable view of the government's motives readily admit that winning a vote in the Commons and actually getting a ban are not the same thing.

The government also appears ready to accept a compromise deal where hunting is allowed to continue under licence - although it is far from certain that would be enough to placate the anti-hunting lobby on the backbenches.

Either way one thing is already true. The announcement has succeeded in switching attention away from the Sixsmith affair and Stephen Byers' future - for the time being at least.

Background and analysis of one of the most contentious issues in British politics

Latest stories

The Scottish ban

Analysis

Background

TALKING POINT
See also:

28 Feb 02 | UK Politics
13 Feb 02 | UK Politics
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