Tony Blair told Labour MPs yesterday that he would not block a ban on fox hunting, but only on condition that MPs did not ruin the Government's legislative programme.
The Prime Minister's intervention came as Labour MPs said they would push for a ban next week when the Hunting Bill returns to the House of Commons. Some Labour MPs want to harden up a government Bill that would license fox hunting if it was judged necessary for pest control and was the least cruel option. But scores of other MPs are planning to back an amendment that would introduce a ban on all forms of fox hunting in England and Wales.
Yesterday, Alun Michael, the Environment minister responsible for steering the Bill through the Commons, faced a rough ride in the weekly meeting of Labour MPs. A string of MPs told him they wanted a ban and would not settle for a "compromise", making clear the Government's Bill was unacceptable
In a final meeting before the Bill returns to the Commons next week, Mr Blair told MPs on the committee responsible for examining it that he would not push a muddled version through Parliament. But he did not try to persuade MPs to scrap plans to push for a ban and said all Labour MPs would be allowed to vote according to their conscience.
Mr Blair, who has voted for a ban before, will vote for Mr Michael's Bill, which will allow limited hunting to continue if it is licensed.
"The Prime Minister seemed quite relaxed about the amendment," Mr Michael said. "He just doesn't want the Bill to go to the Lords and see it dragged out and his legislative programme ripped apart."
The Bill will provoke a battle with the Lords, which is opposed to a ban. Pro-hunting peers are also preparing to oppose the Government's compromise Bill.