Scuffles as pro-hunters hound Blair

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR must know how a hunted fox feels after he was hounded by angry protesters during a campaign trip on the eve of today's Eddisbury by-election.

Scuffles broke out as the fox-hunting lobby booed and jeered the Prime Minister, who intends to ban hunting. His brief walk through the Winsford shopping centre in Cheshire became more like running the gauntlet.

Abandoning his prepared speech in the face of continuous heckling, the Prime Minister shouted: "You Tory supporters here can shout us down, but tomorrow the people of this constituency will have their say." Holding up the hand of the Labour candidate, Margaret Hanson, as if she had won a boxing contest, he declared: "And they will elect Margaret Hanson, who will carry on delivering a better Britain."

But the Tories have been given just as hard a time. William Hague, who has visited the constituency twice in support of the Conservative candidate, Stephen O'Brien, has been chased by one opponent dressed as a giant fox.

Cheshire tempers are running high in this traditionally safe Conservative constitu-ency, to which Labour has dispatched more than 100 MPs and several cabinet ministers in an attempt to secure what would be heralded as an historic mid-term endorsement.

The last time a governing party won a by-election from the Opposition was in 1982. But Eddisbury, which Sir Alastair Goodlad hung on to during Labour's 1997 landslide with a majority of 1,185, could fall to Ms Hanson, 37, a strong local candidate and former mayor of Northwich, who fought the seat last time.

In a county where Cromwell's famous victory over the Royalists at Rowton Heath in 1645 at last secured middle England for the Parliamentarians, Labour sees the Eddisbury seat as one that would demonstrate it can win anywhere. It was one of only seven Tory seats in the north-west of England to be saved in 1997. But as Mr Blair realised yesterday, Labour's plans to outlaw fox-hunting have offended many.

The Green Collars are the oldest hunt in Britain, founded and based in the Swan Hotel, Tarporley, from where the Conservatives are running their campaign. The huntsmen, currently in fighting mood, sing a defiant song: "When laws can check the autumn leaves/From falling as they die,/When fences in November are as blind as in July,/We then will strip our collars off." Their patron is the Prince of Wales, who warns in the foreword of their official history that "Countryside sports are daily threatened by the agents of ignorance and prejudice".

April Style, a retired farmer and Tory voter, expressed some of this emotion yesterday as she brandished a huge rib of beef when Mr Blair passed by. "I have chicken and geese, but they are taken by foxes," she shouted. "They are hunters themselves. They know what hunting is about."

But Mr Blair, with smile fixed, could barely hear Mrs Style above the din.