Labour MPs furious over two-year delay on hunting ban

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Anti-hunting Labour MPs said last night they were furious with Tony Blair for delaying the implementation of a bill to ban fox-hunting for two years.

Anti-hunting Labour MPs said last night they were furious with Tony Blair for delaying the implementation of a bill to ban fox-hunting for two years.

A Government bill to ban all hunting with dogs will be rushed through all its stages next Wednesday and forced through the Lords with the Parliament Act. It could reach the statute book by November.

But the MPs were dismayed when they were told the Bill will be accompanied by a separate motion delaying the implementation of the ban for two years.

Mr Blair said he was worried mass protests by pro-hunting campaigners would cause "chaos" during the general election, expected next year, and throw Labour's campaign off course. He said he did not want images of hunting dogs being put down to be used against Labour.

The Prime Minister said he wanted a delay to allow a ban to be introduced in an orderly way, and for hunting dogs to be found homes. But Mr Blair was facing a backlash from his own MPs, amid fresh accusations of lack of trust in his leadership. Some MPs also accused him of incompetence over his handling of the issue.

The row was made worse by "spin" by Mr Blair's allies who led the MPs to expect a ban would be forced through before the election.

Sir Gerald Kaufman, one of the leading Labour campaigners for a ban, said MPs would vote down a two-year delay. "I am furious - furious! It is unacceptable and we will defeat it," he told The Independent.

Tony Banks, a Labour MP and a leading animal rights campaigner, angrily denied a report there had been a "deal" with the Government to support the two-year delay.

Mr Banks privately met Mr Blair yesterday and warned him the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs at a meeting on Tuesday, chaired by Mr Banks, was against any delay until 2006. "Mr Blair has his reasons for a delay - he wants to be reasonable. We think a year would be reasonable, but two years is unacceptable," said Mr Banks.

One Labour MP said: "Tony is trying to be nice to everyone. But he is going to have blood on the walls over this. The people who go fox-hunting are never going to vote for him. They hate him. It's a shambles."

Gordon Prentice, another leading anti-hunting Labour MP, said: "Tony is trying his usual trick of triangulation. He is trying to buy people off but it won't work. It should have been a big positive issue for us. But it has become a negative. You cannot raise the issue of banning foxhunting without raising howls of laughter now."

Mr Blair privately told his MPs that 70 per cent of voters did not rate a ban on hunting as a high agenda issue. One source said: "Tony has made it clear he thinks it is a passionate issue for a small minority. He is trying to be as reasonable as possible."

The Government had a manifesto commitment to resolve the issue in this Parliament, and had tried to offer a compromise to allow hunting to continue under licence. That so-called "middle way" compromise was rejected in favour of a total ban by the Commons but the majority votes by MPs were frustrated by the Lords.

The new Bill will be identical to the measure rejected by the Lords. It contains a clause allowing implementation within three months. Ministers have told MPs that, if the Lords reject the two-year delay, the Bill will revert to the "default'' position, and it could be implemented within three months.

A minister said: "They could vote for chaos. They may want to see protests throughout the general election by the campaigners for hunting."

The Countryside Alliance is planning a mass demonstration at Parliament next Wednesday.