Mr Blair may still find a way to fox his backbenchers

A hunting ban hurts real voters. They are irritants Mr Blair can do without on his election walkabouts
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Tony Blair remained in his Downing Street foxhole during the vote to abolish hunting while his ministerial stooge, Alun Michael, was finally run to earth by the baying Labour backbench hounds that voted, overwhelmingly, for a complete ban.

Quite what Mr Michael has done to be so completely humiliated during his ministerial career is unclear. Although he was once a cabinet minister (being promoted to Secretary of State for Wales in the wake of Ron Davies' exploits on Clapham Common) he was then, briefly, foisted on the principality as First Minister in an attempt to prevent Rhodri Morgan from taking office. But Mr Michael's rule came to an abrupt end, and Mr Morgan finally overcame Labour's control-freak tendency to succeed him as First Minister.

After a period of wound-licking on the backbenches, Mr Michael then became the Minister of State at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with responsibility for resolving the fox-hunting issue. In fairness, he has been set an impossible task. Mr Blair has been trying to face both ways on the issue since he assumed office over six years ago.

Although in all his public comments he has uttered the anti fox-hunting rhetoric, the Prime Minister's actions have been, and will continue to be, characterised by the same vacillation that has led to indecision on the euro and reform of the House of Lords.

What is now at stake is not only the voters' lack of trust in Mr Blair, as measured by the recent opinion polls, but also the trust placed in him by Labour MPs. Backbenches have already smelt many rats, and their patience finally snapped on Monday night when a hapless Mr Michael, having spent months trying to secure a system of hunt licensing, was forced into an ignominious retreat. He is now in the bizarre position of having to lead the remaining stages of a bill which will not, when it receives its third reading in a fortnight's time, contain his flagship proposal that he commended to the Commons on Monday afternoon.

By the evening, he knew he would lose the vote. If he were to risk losing backbenchers the opportunity of voting on Tony Banks' amendment for an outright ban, by insisting on a vote on his own amendment, there would be a parliamentary riot. Some loyalists, such as Gerald Kaufman, were already intimating there would be such a breakdown of trust that their support for the forthcoming proposal on foundation hospitals might have been in doubt.

But a by-product of this saga may yet be the re-opening of debate on the future of the House of Lords. It appears, on the face of it, that the Government is prepared to give the impression that it will allow the fox-hunting ban to be enacted by means of the Parliament Act. But Labour MPs should be warned. It is only an impression.

The Parliament Act requires the Government to reintroduce the Bill in the next session if it is thwarted in the Lords. But it still looks highly unlikely that the Government will reintroduce it in the Commons in the next session, which begins in November. The Parliament Act states that "If any public bill ... is passed by the House of Commons (in two successive sessions) whether of the same Parliament or not, and having been sent up to the House of Lords at least one month before the end of the session, is rejected by the House of Lords in each of those sessions, that Bill shall on its rejection by the House of Lords, unless the House of Commons votes to the contrary, be presented to Her Majesty and become an Act of Parliament."

There was doubt that there would be time for the "one-month" provision to apply (because the Bill now has to be recommitted to a further Commons committee stage) although the Speaker seemed to indicate that the forthcoming recess period could count towards the "one month" rule.

But many peers expect a protracted argument over whether it will be legal to use the Parliament Act, since the Bill will arrive for their consideration in a completely different form to the proposal Mr Michael wanted. Baroness Mallelieu, a pro-fox-hunting Labour peer, believes the Bill is no longer a government bill, and cannot be subjected to the Parliament Act. She is probably on weak ground, but such a suggestion may be used by Mr Blair to back-track.

Labour MPs should therefore be prepared for further betrayal by Mr Blair. The next session is dangerously close to the general election. Whether he will want a further build-up of opposition from the Countryside Alliance, with rallies and marches overshadowing the election campaign, risking yet more alienation of support from rural voters in marginal seats, is doubtful.

A hunting ban hurts real voters. They may be numerically small, but they are irritants Mr Blair can do without every time he goes on an election walkabout. So stand by for a classic Blair fudge that would see his attention switch to a diversion involving the reopening of the Lords reform debate instead. The cry would go up from the Government, supported by enough backbenchers, that a hunting ban could not be attempted until the Lords are reformed. That should ensure that both issues are kicked into the long grass for several more years. Mr Blair has no intention of shooting these foxes just yet.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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