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Tuesday, 3 December, 2002, 16:58 GMT
The fox hunting fudge
Countryside march
Pro-hunt marchers descended on Downing Street

It has taken more than five years and had more twists and turns than spaghetti junction.

But, finally, the government has come to a conclusion about fox hunting.

And its decision is - not to take a decision.

Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael
Michael sough consensus
Despite what voters may have been led to believe over those five years, ministers have not resolved the question of whether hunting is either cruel or useful and whether, as a result, it should be banned or not.

Instead Mr Michael has come up with the cunning plan to appoint an independent tribunal to decide whether it is cruel or useful and whether individual hunts should be banned or not.

In other words it is a classic fudge aimed at getting the rival lobbies off the government's back.

Tipping the wink

Like so may fudges, however, it actually threatens to infuriate everyone.

The Tories clearly fear it is a back door way of outlawing fox hunting - and Mr Michael will be delighted if that idea takes hold amongst the anti-hunt lobby.

Indeed there have already been signs that government figures have been going around tipping the wink to the anti-hunt lobby to that effect.

But the abolitionists fear the proposal will actually allow hunting to continue pretty much as it does at present.

And that is clearly what ministers want the Countryside Alliance - which will latch onto the usefulness bit of the equation - to believe.

But attempts to look both ways at the same time usually end up with someone falling over a cliff - and it doesn't look good for Mr Michael's proposal.

Serving notice

The anti-hunt MPs on his own backbenches were clearly furious that, five years down the track, their government has, in their view, betrayed them.

A hunt
Hunting the abolitionists
A number of them, led by veteran former frontbencher Gerald Kaufman and ex-ministers Tony Banks and Glenda Jackson, served notice that they would seek to amend the bill to outlaw hunting altogether.

Mr Kaufman even demanded a repeat of the pledge Mr Michael had previously given him that, if the bill is so amended, he would use the Parliament Act to force it through Parliament.

Mr Michael appeared to do that, setting the scene for a future battle.

Distracting mess

But, this time at least, it appears there will be a final conclusion.

The government has used up all its delaying techniques, held its inquiry and sounded out every opinion going.

It is difficult to see any way in which ministers can delay this issue further. And, with the general election still over three years away, some sort of law now looks unavoidable.

But it is also absolutely clear that the government dearly wishes it had never got itself into this entire, distracting mess.

It could probably have got away with not implementing its 1997 election pledge until, a couple of years later, Tony Blair promised to settle the matter.

But now, crunch time has arrived and, thanks to Mr Michael's compromise, the real battle is still ahead.

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

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