"Support Byers in the chamber and chew the socialist red meat of banning fox-hunting." Only the deeply cynical would suggest that this was actually the pager message by which government whips summoned Labour MPs to cheer the beleaguered transport secretary. But this has been a week where cynicism is the only response to a government that no longer believes that ministers who are caught lying should resign.
Perhaps the decision to allow free votes on banning hunting has absolutely nothing to do with saving the skins of ministers, but it can hardly be surprising if there is not the suspicion of linkage to these two apparently unrelated events. Given the Prime Minister's reluctance to provide government time to a Labour MP's private member's bill in the last parliament, it seems strange that he is now suddenly prepared to advance the cause of class warfare in the present session.
Mr Blair has given every impression, so far, of being deeply embarrassed by the wretched insistence of his backbenchers to pursue their vendetta against the countryside. So anxious was he, during his first term, to kill the bill that he was even prepared to dissemble, publicly, on television by claiming that the House of Lords blocked the bill. The bill did not even complete its proceedings in the Commons and never reached the Lords. If Mr Blair had wanted to pursue the matter, he would have made government time available for the completion of the remaining stages in the Commons.
By the time of the general election last year, the issue had been neatly kicked into the long grass, with ministers subsequently keeping their heads down. But with Mr Byers almost run to earth, and Labour MPs showing some occasional signs, since last summer, of flexing their muscles, it seems that it is now time to dangle the odd sweetie to keep the troops under control. However, I suspect that the lumpen proletariat of Labour backbenchers are about to be duped a second time, and that we will be no nearer to banning fox-hunting by the time of the next election than we were at the last election.
The announcement yesterday by Robin Cook, the Leader of the Commons, that there will be a debate on 18 March does nothing to remove the suspicion of trickery. The Commons has already had, before the last election, votes on a series of options that ended in an overwhelming vote in favour of an outright ban. There is no reason why that should be any different this time. The Lords have indicated that they would vote for the retention of hunting, but they are also being given a further opportunity to express a view.
This cynical revival of the hunting issue has more to do with the Government trying to bail itself out of the mess it has created for itself over future Lords reform. It is simply using hunting, apart from keeping backbenchers quiet for a few months, as a method of deliberately provoking a clash between the Commons and the Lords. This ultimately creates yet another "red-meat" issue for Labour MPs, of peers versus Commons, while allowing both the fox-hunting ban and further Lords reform to be kicked into the long grass for as long as possible.
In January last year the Commons voted by an overwhelming majority for the total ban option, but peers voted by 317 to 68 to reject such a ban. On the assumption that the votes, to be held shortly in both houses, go the same way, the Government will presumably be expected to introduce a bill in the Commons at the end of the year, after the Queen's Speech in the autumn. After its proceedings in the Commons it would then go to the Lords, where it would obviously be blocked. To pursue the matter would then require the reintroduction of the bill in the 2003-4 parliamentary session, presumably with the use of the Parliament Act to force the legislation on to the statute book. I simply do not believe that Mr Blair would want a countryside row, with all the attendant marches, rallies and petitions, to distract him from the run-up to the next election. Which is why, significantly, the Government gave no intimation whatsoever yesterday about commitments to legislate.
But there is another factor that may ensure that Labour MPs are thwarted in their hysterical desire to wreak further havoc on the countryside. Ironically this threat comes from their brothers' and sisters' decision in the Scottish Parliament to ban hunting over the border. The legislation being enacted in Edinburgh is understood by most lawyers to be thoroughly flawed and virtually unworkable, and will most certainly be challenged in the European Court. It is inconceivable that proceedings in the Commons or Lords would then be able to continue while similar legislation in Scotland is mired in a legal quagmire.
It seems fantastic that Mr Blair is prepared to put the Government through such a circus yet again, when it is clear that neither he nor most of his Cabinet are actually prepared to contemplate the mayhem that a total ban would create. This is yet another example of fence-sitting while pretending to please Labour MPs. Lords reform and the question of fox-hunting are inextricably linked. They are also issues which the Government likes to keep bubbling below boiling point, without necessarily wanting to see them resolved.
When the Labour MP David Winnick pressed Mr Cook yesterday on what would happen in the event of an impasse between the Lords and Commons, Mr Cook was extraordinarily Delphic in his response: "I do think it would be unwise to speculate in the event of failure." More significantly, he said that the appropriate minister at the Department for Rural Affairs would "consider how to take matters forward and to find a way of reaching a conclusion". But Mr Cook did not promise a bill. There is no doubt that ministers are determined to find a way only to advance the so-called "middle way", involving a compulsory regulatory system requiring all those who want to hunt to obtain a licence. If this fails, as it surely will, then Labour MPs will have been duped.
Hunting is unlikely be abolished by the next election – if ever. But the price Mr Blair will pay for again getting Labour MPs into a froth over hunting will be heavy. The next time a minister is caught lying, Labour MPs will be more willing to run him to earth.