Tally ho! A debate on foxhunting is a sure sign that Blair is running scared

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The Independent Online

The Government must be in trouble. It has dangled the enticing prospect of a vote on fox-hunting in front of Labour MPs. This is what the Government does when there is a whiff of crisis in the air. The word goes out: Don't panic! Start talking about foxes! Yet I suspect that foxes will still be slaughtered by hounds long after the Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, has ceased to be a cabinet minister.

As far as I can recall, this is the third time a ban on fox-hunting has been revived in the midst of a media frenzy. The first occasion was during the Labour conference in 1999 when the newspapers and some Labour MPs were sensing that the Government had lost its sense of direction or wondering whether it had had one in the first place. Outside the conference hall there was a big demonstration by the Countryside Alliance. New Labour's foxy operators were delighted: here was a chance to please the conference and show the media that they meant business. Tony Blair opened his speech with a defiant jibe against the demonstrators: "Tally ho! This is a very good day for foxes," he declared, mocking the protesters and delighting his audience with a clear suggestion that foxes would be saved from any more hunting.

Before the ecstatic applause had faded away, senior cabinet ministers were briefing behind the scenes that legislation would be impossible before the House of Lords was fully reformed. Tally ho – not such a good day for foxes after all.

Never mind, foxes appeared to be getting a belated reprieve the following summer. This was when the media were tormenting the Government about leaked memos from one of Mr Blair's aides. The memos, which had been uncovered by someone called Benji the Binman, gave the impression of a government obsessed by the latest headlines. In order to counter that impression, the Government sought a quick headline. The newspapers were briefed that a fox-hunting ban was back on the agenda. Shortly afterwards they were briefed that although a ban was indeed back on the agenda, there would be no space for legislation before an election. Tally ho – again.

Now the hope has been raised once more on the day after Mr Byers's statement to the Commons about the soap opera in his department. I suspect that in good time the Prime Minister will explain that, although he personally favours a ban, the opposition in the Lords is too great. Instead he will propose the "middle way" which aims to regulate hunting more strictly. In other words, hunting would continue, indeed it would be legitimised by a government that had talked often about a ban.

This is the Government's own destructive contribution to the cynicism surrounding politics. It gives the impression of acting in radical ways when it has no intention of being radical. Voters are not daft. They feel disconnected because there is a disconnection. There are headlines about a fox-hunting ban and then there is no ban on fox-hunting. In the past there have been headlines about a transport revolution when there quite clearly has been no revolution in transport. We are supposed to have had at least one NHS revolution since May 1997. Indeed, on a whole range of issues you can take your pick between the grand proclamations and the reality on the ground.

In spite of the media brouhaha, this is not a sleazy administration. Nearly always the reason for the disconnection is a neurotic defensiveness in the Blairite court from those who are terrified of the newspapers and who mismanage every crisis out of sheer panic. Last week the familiar allegations about New Labour's arrogance and indifference to popular opinion whirled around in the media. If only it were true. The Government is still obsessed by how it is seen in the media and by the wider electorate.

That was the case even during the never-ending honeymoon of the first term. In the autumn of 1997, when all the newspapers were purring and Labour was 34 points ahead in the polls, a senior aide in Downing Street was heard at a social gathering screaming: "They all hate us out there!" Goodness knows what this person was screaming last week.

Parts of the media are going through one of their hysterical phases. Martin Sixsmith was not a typical civil servant and Jo Moore was not a typical special adviser. This is not an emblematic story and yet anyone who visited Westminster last week would have assumed that the Third World War had broken out. In reality most of the more ardent New Labour special advisers have left the Government, and those who are still in place work well with the civil servants. There was a problem at the Department of Transport because of Ms Moore's memo, her bullying, intolerant manner, the insular dependence of Mr Byers on Ms Moore, and some underperforming press officers who sought to stitch up Ms Moore. The BBC is considering a drama series based on the hugely entertaining West Wing from the US. This would hardly qualify as an audience-grabbing plot.

Senior ministers are in a state of agonised fury about the overblown reaction in the media, but they do not know how lucky they are. After nearly five years in power, they still rule with a landslide majority and virtually no serious political opposition. They have a siege-like mentality when no one is seriously besieging them. That is why Mr Byers will eventually be gone. As with the fuel dispute the Government will cave in, but in its own time. Mr Byers will be fed to the lions, or the foxes if any of them are still alive, before very long.

With a neat symmetry last Wednesday, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, announced the introduction of congestion charging for motorists in the capital, just as ministers were manoeuvring to save Mr Byers. In the first term, ministers spent even more energy manoeuvring to prevent Mr Livingstone from becoming Mayor. Whether you agree with congestion charging or not, this was a bold move that allowed voters to make a connection between an announcement and a policy. Faced with a similar dilemma, the Government would have been much too timid to introduce such a policy, and yet it happily runs around in circles playing devious games that land it in deadly trouble. Stop Livingstone! Don't tell the truth about Sixsmith!

Now ministers must get out of their latest cunning contortion: how to prevent a ban on fox-hunting, even though a majority of Labour MPs want one. In running from the media hounds the Government is far too foxy for its own good.