Labour MPs reacted angrily last night after the Government announced plans to allow a free vote on the future of hunting but stopped short of introducing a Bill banning the sport.
Ministers gave their strong-est indication yet that they would back the middle-way option, which falls short of a complete ban, if the House of Lords and the House of Commons fail to agree on outlawing hunting with dogs.
Robin Cook, the Leader of the House, said he favoured the compromise option, which would license hunting under certain conditions, as he announced plans to allow MPs and peers a free vote next month.
But Tony Banks, the former sports minister who is leading the campaign to ban hunting, said he was disappointed with government delays. "The Government is still hanging on to the futile hope that they are going to find a easy way out of this issue. They are not."
There were indications last night that pro-hunting peers may soften their opposition to curbs and back the middle-way option; MPs are expected to vote overwhelmingly to ban the sport.
Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, will be told to bring in a Bill that reflects the views of both houses.
Gordon Prentice, Labour MP for Pendle, accused Tony Blair of behaving like the Grand Old Duke of York, "marching the troops up to the top of the hill again when it is as plain as a pikestaff what the view is of this House".
Mr Cook did not rule out introducing a Bill on hunting this parliamentary session. Bills on reform of the Lords, extradition of terror suspects, and criminal justice would be put off because of a lack of time.