Blair to back the 'hunt ban' that isn't

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will tomorrow vote to ban fox-hunting – but his symbolic gesture is expected to precede his retreat to a compromise position on the issue just days later.

The Prime Minister, under pressure from Labour back-benchers and animal-rights campaigners determined to ban hunting with dogs, has given MPs the opportunity to vote on fox-hunting for the third time since 1997. But he has not voted for a ban.

Downing Street would not confirm his voting intentions but his spokesman made clear that Mr Blair had no other engagements tomorrow night. His expected decision, however, is being seen as a "cynical" ploy to appear to support a fox-hunting ban knowing that opponents in the House of Lords will reject the move and support the "middle-way" option to allow hunting to continue under licence.

The Rural Affairs minister, Alun Michael, is then expected to go to Parliament on Thursday promising a new Bill that would meet the wishes of both houses. The preferred option, supported by Cabinet ministers Robin Cook, Jack Straw and David Blunkett – and understood now to have the backing of Mr Blair – will be a proposal to allow licensed hunting to continue only where there was no evidence of cruelty, coupled with a ban on hare-coursing.

The compromise plan has enraged anti-hunt campaigners. MPs have tabled a Commons motion, already signed by 174 members, demanding an outright ban. And Labour MPs including Gordon Prentice, Tony Banks and Mike O'Brien, the former Home Office minister who steered the last hunting Bill through the Commons, are trying to secure a vote on an amendment that would bring back the existing hunting Bill.

The move is likely to be resisted. If the existing Bill were brought back, a ban on hunting would almost automatically become law under the Parliament Act.

The Government has let it be known that this option is unlikely to be accepted, claiming that the 2001 Bill is "unworkable" – a significant departure from Mr Blair's remarks when he launched Labour's manifesto for the 2001 election. Then, he said: "It is important that since the present Bill has fallen we bring it back."

The move towards a compromise on hunting has infuriated Labour MPs. They now plan to warn ministers at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Wednesday that they will press for a ban regardless of government support.