Tory old guard under fire over hunting Bill

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FIVE former cabinet ministers, attacked yesterday as the "tired old guard" of the Tory party, will today lead the moves to stop the private member's Bill banning fox-hunting.

Douglas Hogg, the former agriculture minister, who was vilified by the farmers over the BSE crisis during his term of office, has tabled 124 separate amendments of his own which will slow progress on the anti-hunting Bill to a snail's pace.

Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, who led the charge against the Bill's second reading, has been joined by John MacGregor, Tom King and Sir Brian Mawhinney in tabling amendments.

Tony Blair will be in Scotland today for a keynote speech to the party conference in Perth, and will not be in the House to support the Bill by Mike Foster, the Labour MP for Worcester. In spite of the massive vote in support of the Bill, government sources have made no secret that they would prefer to see it stopped before it reaches the Lords, where it would threaten the main legislative programme.

The Government's embarrassment over the Bill has been heightened following last week's countryside march in London, which forced a series of pre- emptive concessions on countryside issues.

Mr Foster's Bill is likely to survive a full day of debate today but is expected to be killed next Friday through lack of parliamentary time.

Home Office ministers are alarmed that anti-hunting MPs will then seek to attach a ban on fox-hunting to the Government's Crime and Disorder Bill in the next session.

To head off that threat, there is increasing support within the Government for a ban on fox-hunting to be subjected to an independent cross-party inquiry by two select committees - home affairs and agriculture.

Both pro- and anti-hunting groups delivered have petitions to Downing Street, each signed by more than a million people. Faced with such strong emotions, Mr Blair is expected to support any move which can put the hunters and their opponents in the long grass.

Mr Foster said: "The type of people that are looking to block the Bill are the old guard; they're yesterday's politicians and there's a vast difference between the politics of today ... and pre-1 May."