Lingering hopes for a foxhunting ban before the next election were dashed yesterday after too few Labour MPs turned up in the Commons to vote for the measure.
There was confusion after Ken Livingstone's Private Member's Bill gained a surprise reprieve, then failed to get enough support to ensure the Bill would get enough parliamentary time to get onto the statute book.
Mr Livingstone, the independent candidate for London Mayor and MP for Brent East, denied there had been a stitch-up by the Government to stop his Wild Mammals (Hunting With Dogs) Bill.
Using a rare parliamentary procedure, Andrew Dismore, the anti-foxhunting MP for Hendon, had successfully thrown out a Tory Private Member's Bill to enable debate on Mr Livingstone's Bill.
The Tories said this was done because Government business managers hoped Mr Livingstone would not be in the Commons to open debate on his Bill. Mr Livingstone later insisted there was "no conspiracy theory", adding: "I was approached by a Government whip earlier this week to check that I would be available from 9.30 and I gave that assurance.
"When I got here at 9.10, I went straight to my office - I didn't happen to see any other MPs so there may have been a suggestion going round I wasn't in the building. So no conspiracy, no threats, just good fortune all round."
But Mr Livingstone did not get the 100 MPs needed when the vote on the Bill's second reading came. Although whips sent out pager messages urging MPs to come and support the Bill, some backbenchers said there would have been a more concerted effort if Mr Livingstone was still in the Labour Party.
At a special meeting on Wednesday, Tony Blair said MPs should not discriminate against the Bill simply because it was in the name of the former GLC leader. Mr Livingstone said once the Tory Bill fell, anti-hunting campaigners had frantically phoned MPs to get them to come in, but they ran out of time.
"There is a limited number you could pull in at short notice. Most supporters of the hunting ban had looked at the agenda and worked out it was not going to be reached. I came in on the off-chance that it would get half-an-hour at the end of the day."
A previous attempt to ban hunting with dogs was backed with a 260 majority at second reading but fell victim to Tory delaying tactics in its later Commons stages in 1998.
Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has promised that the Government will support a Private Member's Bill once the Burns inquiry into the impact of a possible hunting ban has reported at the end of May.
Mike O'Brien, the Home Office Minister, told MPs they would get a chance to debate the inquiry's findings. But although it would be possible to introduce a Private Member's Bill next parliamentary session, it is now likely there will not be a ban until the next general election. Some sources say the Government will propose its own legislation, giving MPs multiple choices on a ban in the Labour manifesto.
Mr Livingstone had opened the debate by branding hunting with dogs a "barbaric practice," and said he believed in the right of animals "not to be torn apart on a grand scale".
He added: "Some estimates go as high as 100,000 foxes, deer and hare torn apart by dogs every year. That is the scale of totally unnecessary cruelty and suffering rejected by the vast majority of the British people."
Michael Foster, the MP for Worcester and campaigner for a ban, said shooting was a "viable alternative" to fox hunting. He discounted claims that fox hunting was doing the countryside a service by picking out the weak, old and lame.
He said hounds could not differentiate through scent "a healthy young fox and a three-legged fox or an old fox". Drag hunting would ensure all the jobs, services, the social side, the thrill of the ride and the chase from fox hunting would be maintained.
Up to 20,000 foxes are killed by hounds. Some 80,000 were killed by shooting and 100,000 by cars.