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Thursday, 21 March, 2002, 15:11 GMT
Here we go again
Fox hunting
The hunt goes on for a compromise
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By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

So now we know. The government is definitely going to do something about fox hunting.

It's not going to do it just yet. And it's not quite clear exactly what it is going to do.

But countryside minister Alun Michael has called on his MPs to trust him when he promises that there will be a new law and he is ready to use the Parliament Act to force it through the Lords.

Countryside protest
Demonstrations met ban calls
But after years of debate, huge demonstrations, two Commons votes overwhelmingly demanding a total ban, and one lengthy inquiry, he has put off the day of reckoning for at least another six months while he seeks "common ground."

And, unsurprisingly, his insistence that this will then finally bring the matter to a conclusion satisfied no one.

Waste of time

Just about all sides of the argument were angered by his announcement - presumably because none were exactly sure what it meant.

Pro-ban backbencher Gerald Kaufman put Mr Michael on the spot and got what was probably the most encouraging answer for the anti-hunters.

He asked the minister if, in six months time, the government came back with a bill allowing some hunting to continue and the Commons then removed all those exceptions, would he still force the law through.

Countryside minister Alun Michael
Michael angered everyone
Mr Michael didn't actually use the word, but he appeared to say yes.

But if that is the case, then the next six months will be a complete waste of time.

Mr Michael has effectively told the anti-hunting side that, if they stick to their guns and resolutely refuse to accept any compromise, then they should ultimately get their way.

Huge pressure

Strangely, even they seemed reluctant to accept that logic.

Despite Mr Michael's pleas, there is huge amount of distrust over the government's position - and that has not been eased by the announcement.

One theory suggests this is a crafty attempt by Tony Blair to push through a total ban while, at the same time, giving himself an excuse to declare "not my fault."

Other speculation is that there will now be huge pressure brought on a few of the pro-ban backbenchers to swing them behind a compromise to avert a clash with the Lords.

It is certainly difficult to see what more can be achieved in the nest six months that has not been done in the past five years.

And if, after months of troubles, Tony Blair is trying to show that he has now got a firm grip on the political agenda then this appears designed to undermine that campaign.

See also:

21 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Talks pledge over hunting bill
17 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Blunkett backs hunting compromise
18 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Blair hunts a way out
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