Blair in last-ditch bid to find middle way on hunting ban

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Tony Blair made a last-ditch attempt to secure a compromise on fox hunting yesterday as he pledged to back efforts to introduce regulated hunting instead of an outright ban.

Tony Blair made a last-ditch attempt to secure a compromise on fox hunting yesterday as he pledged to back efforts to introduce regulated hunting instead of an outright ban.

Mr Blair's spokesman said the Prime Minister would back an amendment to the Hunting Bill to overturn the outright ban favoured by Labour backbenchers and reinstate government plans to introduce stringent limits on fox hunting.

But the announcement has taken the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by surprise.

The House of Lords have already rejected proposals for a ban in favour of a version of the Government's original plans - named the "Alun Michael Bill" after the Rural Affairs minister - which would allow limited fox hunting under strict licence.

Anti-hunt MPs, led by the former sports minister Tony Banks, have vowed to force a ban today, which could be in force by February if the Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, invokes the rarely used Parliament Act to resolve the stand off between the two Houses.

The Lords debated the final stages of the legislation last night at the start of three days of parliamentary "ping-pong" between the Commons and the Lords until the end of the parliamentary session on Thursday. If no agreement is reached, Mr Martin is likely to force the ban through using the Parliament Act for only the fourth time in its 55-year history.

But Mr Blair's spokesman said the Prime Minister was still anxious to secure a compromise when MPs debate the measure today: "The Prime Minister is interested in a compromise. Assuming that there is a suitable amendment, the Prime Minister will be voting for restitution of the 'Alun Michael Bill'.

"The Prime Minister believes it is right to indicate the degree of his support for compromise. The Prime Minister is voting for what he believes in and that is a free vote."

The Prime Minister's surprise intervention raises the prospect that the some ministers and parliamentary aides on the government "payroll vote" may swing behind his lead.

But last night many senior government ministers said they believed the outright ban would be carried by a large majority despite the Prime Minister's announcement.

They said a ban would be in place by February, and ruled out suggestions of a one-line Bill in the Queen's Speech to delay the introduction of a ban.

Campaigners were sceptical about the compromise. A spokesman for the "Middle Way Group" of MPs and peers called on Mr Blair to show leadership. He said: "He is the Prime Minister. If it's not him who runs the country, is it run by the Gerald Kaufmans and Tony Bankses of this world?"

The Countryside Alliance demanded an "evidence-based" compromise. A spokesman said: "It's up to the Prime Minister to show that he is running the party, not his backbenchers."

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