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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 November, 2004, 21:03 GMT
Hunt ban's impact on Blair
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

It all started when Tony Blair stunned everyone - including, it was said, his own cabinet - by declaring he would ban hunting before the election.

Hunting with dogs
Blair promised ban in 1999
That, however, was in 1999 and he was talking about the 2001 general election.

Five years later - and after an unprecedented battle which saw extraordinary and angry and chaotic scenes in Parliament, it is about to happen and MPs are totting up the political cost of the long and bitter campaign which even sometimes seemed to split the country.

And the key question is whether it has all proved - or will prove - a political plus or minus for the prime minister.

At the time of his original promise, Tony Blair had just suffered a minor setback in local elections and was being given a relatively hard time by a BBC Question Time audience.

Old Labourish

Asked about the 1997 election manifesto pledge on hunting, he declared: "It will be banned. We will get the vote to ban as soon as we possibly can.

"We are looking at ways of bringing it forward in future sessions. We will try if we possibly can to give it space in the upcoming session or the one after that".

It has seen Mr Blair's personal authority undermined with all his attempts to win a compromise being roundly rejected by his backbenchers
It was claimed at the time that his surprise announcement on a manifesto pledge which had not proved to be a huge issue at that point was designed to cheer up his MPs in the wake of the local elections and prove he stood by pre-election promises.

And in the five years since then it has regularly been suggested he has used the issue as a sprat to throw to his hungry backbenchers eager for a taste of something leftish, or Old Labourish.

His opponents have characterised it as the last heave in the old class war.

But if the issue has been used as a political football, as many claim, has it proved an own goal?

Election issue

On the downside it has provided a running sore for the government and a point of focus for rebellious backbenchers fed up with what they saw as the government's tendency to fudge, particularly when faced with any serious opposition.

Pro-hunt protestors
Protest will run through election
It has taken up huge amounts of Parliamentary time which many believe could have been far better used to push through more fundamental and radical reforms in areas that had a more direct bearing on ordinary people's lives.

It has sparked mass demonstrations by the Countryside Alliance and polarised opinion, occasionally appearing to set country against city dwellers or, alternatively, rural Tories against urban Labourites.

It has seen Mr Blair's personal authority undermined with all his attempts to win a compromise being roundly rejected by his backbenchers.

And it has threatened, and continues to threaten, to be an election issue.

Thanks to the decision to implement the ban by February - assuming court challenges do not stymie that - it now looks certain to become a general election issue.

But there is some good news in all this for the prime minister.

By far the best is that it has given those rebellious backbenchers a valve through which to let off steam.

Sense of relief

They have had their way on an issue many feel strongly about but which does nothing to undermine the government's core programme - this isn't foundation hospitals, for example.

It has seen the prime minister able to claim he has kept his promise and allowed MPs a free vote on the issue, so dismissing suggestions he is a control freak.

It also undoubtedly appeals to many of Labour's core voters who have otherwise been growing disillusioned with the government.

And it remains to be seen just how significant the issue will really be at a general election or how much impact the Countryside Alliance demonstrations will have in the rough and tumble of that campaign.

While some Labour MPs fear the sight of demonstrations and attempts to target key constituencies by hunt supporters could prove damaging to the government.

Others, however, believe it will have precisely the opposite effect, particularly with core Labour voters, and persuade them to come out and vote.

It certainly appears that this issue will continue to dominate headlines for some time to come and may even spark scenes of civil disobedience alongside court battles.

For most both inside and outside Westminster, however, there will most likely be a sense of relief that at least all the political shenanigans appear finally to be over.

Whether the real battle still lies ahead, however, remains to be seen.

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