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(Updated 04/03/01)

Blair wants to ditch hunting ban pledge


By Nick Mays

TONY BLAIR is desperately fighting a rearguard action against pressure from Labour MPs not to drop a commitment to ban foxhunting form the next Labour Party general election manifesto.


The MPs want to be sure that if, as expected, the current anti-hunting legislation fails to become law by polling day - widely believed to be May 3rd - Labour will reintroduce a new anti-hunting Bill if it wins the election.


However, Mr Blair has privately told close colleagues that he determined to ditch he legislation, because it is too divisive in rural areas.. Added to this is the recent anxiety in rural communities over the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease. With rural communities already facing financial hardship as a result of the stringent control measures against the disease, the prospect the rural economy being damaged further by a ban on hunting, Mr Blair in anxious to avoid a huge political backlash which will cost his party seats in affected areas.


Mr Blair wants to avoid such a backlash by removing any reference to another free vote von hunting in the next Parliament. However, such a move will undoubtedly cause outrage amongst his own MPs many of who fear that the party will be accused of breaking a promise if it adopts this tactic.


“There is a very strong view in the Parliamentary Labour Party that the legislation must be brought back if it does not get through the first time and that it should be include din our manifesto,” said Clive Soley, the PLP chairman.
It is clear now that Mr Blair regrets his promise made two years ago on BBC TV’s Question Time programme that hunting would be banned. At the time, his announcement stunned many of his Cabinet, who had no idea he was even considering such a move. Many commentators at the time pointed out that Mr Blair was under increasingly hostile media attention, so his adoption of what he saw as a populist move would appease the press, as well as animal rights activists and anti-hunting campaigners.


The current Bill gave MPs a free vote on three different options on the future of hunting, and a majority of 213 opted for a full ban.


Little chance


The Bill returned to the floor of the House of Commons on Tuesday of this week for its report stage, even though it stands very little chance of clearing the House of Lords before the general election is held.


Many ministers feel that the Bill is wasting valuable Parliamentary time which could be better spent on “more constructive” legislation. They also expect the peers to reject an outright ban and instead vote for no change or for licensed hunting, the so-called ‘Middle Way’ option favoured by Home Secretary Jack Straw.


Some anti-hunting MPs want the party not only to give a manifesto commitment that the Bill will return, but that they Government will use the Parliament Act to steamroller the legislation through and onto the statute books if the House of Lords rejected it.


Meanwhile, Clive Soley has been discussing the matter with ministers and hinted that Labour MPs would be happy to have the Bill left out of the manifesto, as long as they knew it was going to come back at some point.
“What is important is that we bring the Bill back,” said Mr Soley. “I’m more flexible on the issue of the manifesto, because I do not think that is as important as a Government guarantee that it would be introduced. I would trust that guarantee.”
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