THE PRIME Minister and the Government suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of anti-hunting MPs most of them Labour Members - when the Commons voted to ban fox hunting and rejected the Government's compromise Bill last Monday night.
After five hours oF rowdy and often bad-tempered debate, the anti-hunters won the day, when it became clear to Labour Whips that they had no chance of fending off the rebellion.
The scale of the defeat - by a majority of 208 - dealt a severe blow to the Prime Minister, who has experienced his worst three months in Parliament, with rebellions over Iraq, foundation hospitals, tuition fees and firefighters' pay.
Mr Blair had expressed his personal backing for the Government's Bill, which would have set up a system of licensing for fox hunts. But MPs, led by Tony Banks, the former sports minister, defied the Government and in a free vote overwhelmingly rejected its Bill by 362 votes to 154.
The vote followed an astonishing retreat by the Government during the latter stages of the Commons debate when it suddenly withdrew proposals aimed at strengthening its compromise plan to allow hunting to continue in exceptional circumstances. Realising that they were heading for defeat, ministers "pulled" their own amendment to allow Hunting to continue under licence - and gave Labour MPs a free run to vote for a blanket ban.
In jubilant Commons scenes Labour MPs were predicting that they would have achieved their aim of a complete ban on the centuries-old pursuit by the middle of next year at the latest.
Pro-hunt protesters demonstrating outside Parliament Square were outraged at the news and vowed to continue their opposition. .
It is no secret that Ministers need the vote of Labour MPs in a series of crucial votes in the weeks ahead, particularly on foundation hospitals, so it was clear that they decided not to alienate their most loyal supporters, thus withdrawing their limited hunting amendment.
The bill has been sent back to Standing Committee for procedural work to incorporate the changes. A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the work should be completed in time for MPs to vote on the amended bill before the Commons rises for the summer recess on July 17. But the Bill will face stiff opposition in the House of Lords, which has twice previously voted against a total ban. It must clear the Lords by the end of the session in September or October in order to come into force.
Mr Michael indicated last year that the Government would use the Parliament Act to force peers to accept the will of the Commons. But he warned last night it would be "extremely difficult" to invoke the Act in the case of a bill so fundamentally altered from what was initially presented to MPs.
Left- winger Tony Banks was the main force behind the opposition to the Governments amendment and the push for an outright ban. He hailed the vote as "excellent news."
"We have got some tidying up to do, which we will do in committee, and hopefully we have achieved a total ban on the hunting of wild mammals with dogs, which is something we promised as a party that we would do," said Mr Banks.
Douglas Batchelor, of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: "We are delighted that MPs have rejected the Government's attempt to compromise on the issue of hunting with dogs."
The Countryside Alliance dismissed the vote as "irrelevant". A spokesperson said: "Alun Michael was never, as he pretended, trying to reach a principled compromise but seeking to push through dishonest legislation that was a ban in all but name. The Bill was already completely discredited before the Government withdrew its amendments and allowed Labour MPs chose to subvert it further.
"Instead of making a ban more likely the vote for a banning amendment in fact pushes it further away. It means that the Government has failed in its desperate attempt to persuade backbenchers and animal rights groups to back its Bill and that the Bill will return to Standing Committee in the House of Commons.
"In the Government's own words this Bill is now wrecked and deficient. It is based solely on prejudice and discrimination and the Alliance is confident that the House of Lords will take the opportunity to reject unprincipled and unscientific legislation as it has in the past."
Nick Mays comments:
So once again, MPs have voted for an outright ban on hunting the only difference this time being that the Government appear to have given this vote their tacit approval. Once again the Bill will return to the Lords for further debate and once again the Lords will kick it out.
all the talk that the Government would use the Parliament
Act to force the Bill through against the Lords, it is most
likely that the Bill will once again be lost in
parliamentary procedure. As Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael
himself admitted, it would be "extremely difficult"
to use the Act now that the Bill has been so fundamentally
altered from what was initially presented to MPs. With a General
Election looming on the horizon in 2005, Tony Blair will be
keen to avoid an all-out fight with the rural community if
a Hunt Ban came into effect by 2004.
Alternatively, the Parliament Act will be used to force the Bill through, but any outright ban on foxhunting would not take effect until 2005 perhaps just after a General Election. Meanwhile, Tory Leader Iain Duncan-Smith has pledged that a future Conservative Government would reverse any ban on foxhunting.
So hunters wont be hanging up their pinks and shooting their hound packs just yet. The Stirrup Cup will still be passed around and Monsieur Reynard will still give them a run for their money.
ALUN MICHaeL the Rural Affairs Minister and architect of the Governments Hunting Bill was pelted with women's knickers as part of a pro-hunting protest at the Royal Show in Warwickshire on the eve of the Bills third reading in the House of Commons. It was one of several protests at the agriculture show, which included forcing Mr Michael to sit through a parade of foxhounds, staghounds and harriers.
Mr Michael spoke out after being jeered by hunt supporters at the Royal Show last weekend. A number of Countryside Alliance protesters threw womens underwear at him, but this was no Tom Jones-style adulation. The panties were hurled as part of the Countryside Alliances Pants to Prejudice campaign.
The minister was rattled by the strength of opposition to his Bill during a Question Time session on rural matters chaired by the television presenter Nick Ross. The minister said that his Bill was "tough and fair" and he emphasised that it would produce legislation that was "robust and enforceable".
Hunting provided a tense backdrop during last Sundays visit. Even the organisers of the Royal Show appeared to snub Mr Michael when they allowed a parade of stag hounds, harriers and fox hounds in the main ring just before the opening ceremony.