The statement signalled the start of a fierce battle between countryside campaigners and animal rights groups, both of which have mustered their resources for just such a fight.
The news came after months of pressure from Labour backbenchers who believed party leaders had backed away from their pre-election support for a ban. The Prime Minister is believed to have wanted local bans dependent on the result of referendums, but the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is now putting the final touches to plans for full abolition of fox-hunting, stag-hunting, hare-coursing and mink-hunting with dogs. However, the pro- hunting lobby will be thrown a crumb of comfort. Some counties could escape the ban through "opt-out" referendums, probably triggered by petitions.
The surprise attack on hunting was being interpreted in some quarters as a diversionary tactic after a week in which the Government was racked by controversy over splits between Tony Blair and his deputy, John Prescott, on public services.
Nothing could temper the jubilant reaction of anti-hunting campaigners, though. They had been pressing the Government to act since a private member's Bill brought by Michael Foster, Labour MP for Worcester, was talked out by opponents at its Commons committee stage.
Backbenchers had repeatedly raised their concerns on the issue with ministers at meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Although Labour's manifesto promised only a free vote on hunting, a pledge fulfilled in November 1997, many backbenchers felt the Government should put its weight behind abolition.
Mr Blair seems finally to have been persuaded of the need for radical action by Mr Straw, who said only a few months ago that he did not see a government role in banning hunting. Legislation, which could take the form of a stand-alone government Bill, will be introduced either this autumn or next so that a ban can be in place before the general election.
The first sign of the Government's change of heart came in a BBC Question Time interview with Mr Blair on Thursday night. "It will be banned. I mean we will get the vote to ban as soon as we possibly can," he said. "We've already said we will try if we possibly can to give it space in the upcoming session of Parliament or the one after that."
What was not clear last night was whether hunting would be banned in Scotland and Wales, where the issue is devolved.
The chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, Richard Burge, said the move would mean the destruction of 16,000 rural jobs. "A hunting ban now would be taken as the final slap in the face for rural communities already reeling from the biggest farming crisis since the 1930s, the right to roam legislation, and the decimation of rural abattoirs," he said.
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