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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 July, 2003, 08:14 GMT 09:14 UK
Analysis: Blair concedes defeat

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Tony Blair probably bowed to the inevitable by allowing MPs to back a total ban on hunting with dogs.

A giant paper mache fox is driven past Big Ben by the anti-hunting lobby
Anti-hunt protesters had called for an outright ban
Faced with near-certain defeat in the Commons, he ordered his hapless minister Alun Michael to execute one of the most humiliating U-turns of this parliament.

It will cause trouble with the House of Lords and infuriate the Countryside Alliance. It is also far from clear how soon the ban will get onto the statute books.

But it appears the prime minister simply ran out of steam in opposing his backbenchers' demands for the end of the blood sport.

And he may even believe that he can portray the move as the actions of a "listening" prime minister and that the pro-hunt lobby will aim their anger at his MPs rather than him personally.

Government sources insisted the change came because it only emerged late in the day that, thanks to the way the Commons business had been planned, the rebels may have been denied a vote on their amendment had ministers not withdrawn their own motion.

Foundation hospitals

That was seen by many, however, as a last-minute excuse to spare some of the government's embarrassment.

The government also said the U-turn was an act of good faith to backbenchers who had been demanding Tony Blair fulfilled an election manifesto pledge and allowed them a vote on a total ban.

And it is absolutely clear that the last thing the prime minister wants at the moment is yet another row with his own MPs, particularly as he is facing a major rebellion over foundation hospitals next week.

Most saw the climbdown as a concession to the left wing of the party in a bid to head off next week's revolt.

The outcome of this extraordinary about face is that the bill will now have to go back to the Lords, who will throw it out.

Delays

That will lead to yet more delays and see pressure on the government to invoke the little-used Parliament Act to force the legislation through - presumably before the next election.

And no one, not even Mr Michael himself, seems to know whether that is possible on the new legislation.

But there is a huge sense of deja vu over all this.

The cave in came after six years which saw the government involved in a dizzying process of twisting and turning in an attempt to avoid a ban.

He wanted to satisfy his core vote, which is overwhelmingly anti-hunting. But he was also terrified of alienating his new found supporters in rural areas.

Trouble ahead

And when he first ran into trouble over this issue it was seen as a major row.

Several years on and it looks like a pimple when compared to the mountains of grief now surrounding the prime minister.

It seems likely Mr Blair has decided this is one fight that simply isn't worth the aggravation.

He has far more dangerous issues on his plate and can do without having to expend any more government energy on this issue.

There will be serious trouble ahead with the Lords, but the final outcome now seems certain. Fox hunting will be banned.




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