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Last Updated: Monday, 27 September, 2004, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
On the trail of Alun Michael
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online politics staff at Labour's conference

The protesters' banners and the shouting said it all: Alun Michael, the minister hunted by the hunters was about to arrive.

But hang on, these were not the red tunics or green waxed jackets of the countryside lobby.

Alun Michael in Exeter last week
Michael has been pursued by protesters over the hunt ban
Instead, they were the blue and white strips of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club.

And their chants were not the shouts of anger at the likely extinction of a country pursuit but the cries of Seagulls' fans demanding a new stadium for their beloved club.

It must have been a relief for Mr Michael that he was this time not the campaigners' quarry.

Pro-hunt protests have caused Mr Michael to cancel two recent events on police advice about public safety and his car was pelted with eggs outside a public meeting in Exeter.

But the minister has insisted the countryside has not become a no-go area for him - citing the engagements he has kept.

Urban code?

At Labour's conference on Monday night he was dabbling in the rural fringe meetings as BBC News Online trailed his progress.

Mr Michael certainly did not look like a hunted prey as he strolled on Brighton Pier for the Countryside Agency's meeting, smiling and looking relaxed.

"Both views are patronising and absurd," he began.

But the minister was astute enough not to be referring to the fierce hunting debate.

Hunt protests outside Parliament earlier this month
Thousands of hunt protesters are expected on Tuesday in Brighton
He was talking about the provocative contributions which preceded him at the meeting, including comedian Arthur Smith's tongue-in-cheek "urban code" which included the sage advice for city visitors: "Never look anyone in the eye except your optician."

Mr Michael urged people to dismiss terms which suggested a division between country dwellers and townies.

"Let us instead build bridges over such divides together," he said.

Multiple concerns

He pointed to the kind of interests shared by people in towns and the countryside, where a city barrister might hunt and a rural solicitor might not.

And he defended Labour's record on helping the countryside on a range of issues.

His argument that countryside concerns went far beyond hunting was backed by the audience's questions about a whole range of issues - jobs, small businesses, right to roam and housing.

But hunting was raised and Mr Michael admitted he was "extremely frustrated" it was overshadowing other rural issues.

"I regard dealing with hunting as a piece of my brief which has to be dealt with but the range of issues we have been talking about is not the big real issue," he said.

'MPs must prevail'

It was not a priority for the government, he says, with MPs taking the lead by voting on it so many times and Labour had promised to resolve the issue.

"If you cannot have movement on one side or the other side then you end up with the views of the House of Commons being the one that has to prevail," he adds.

The hunted minister left the meeting with only two TV crews hampering his progress, and the two police officers who seem to be escorting him now only had to strain to keep up with the brisk-walking Mr Michael.

When I picked up his tracks to the Grand Hotel ( the conference guide left no need for a bloodhound), country sports enthusiasts had him encircled.

But this time there was no "braying" over what hunt supporters called his "broken promises" on a ban.

Fishing reassurance

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation reception instead applauded the minister as he underlined Labour's pledge to support fishing and shooting.

He was thanked for his work over issues such as protecting fish from cormorants, although the lobby stressed it "passionately disagrees" with his position on hunting.

Such polite discord is unlikely to be seen in Brighton on Tuesday.

The thousands of pro-hunt campaigners who are set to gather will be venting their anger against Labour as a whole, not just the rural affairs minister.

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