THE GOVERNMENT is preparing to rush a new Hunting Bill through the Commons in a single day between September 13 and 15 in a last-ditch attempt to ban hunting with hounds and appease anti-hunting MPs and campaigners. The proposed legislation would be sent to the Lords in October.
The Prime Minister has been told that any last minute wavering would make the position of at least one Cabinet minister untenable and cause their resignation, as well as provoking a backlash among MPs and activists.
Although the Commons has repeatedly voted for a ban on foxhunting, previous Bills have been blocked by peers or have run out of parliamentary time amid persistent indications that Mr Blair is uneasy about confronting the pro-hunting lobby and rural voters who already feel disenfranchised by what they see as an urban Government.
Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons and a number of other senior ministers received promises during the summer that this time Downing Street will back the Bill "through to the finishing line".
Left wing Labour MP, Tony Banks, a leading Labour supporter of banning foxhunting, said: "I don’t believe the Prime Minister will change his mind again, because the consequences of doing so would be very serious. Not only would there be a lot of anger from backbenchers and party members, there would also be embarrassment on the front bench as well.
"The Leader of the House has gone out on a limb on this issue, which has become one of the Government’s political credibility. A lot has been said in private discussions between ministers and I think any wavering or flip-flopping would make some positions untenable."
Mr Hain has already delayed any announcement about the latest attempt to ban foxhunting because Downing Street feared that the House of Lords, where the Government does not have a majority, would wreck other key pieces of legislation, although many senior anti-hunting peers are bound to have an inkling of the Government’s intentions. Bills on asylum and university tuition fees completed their passage through Parliament in the days before the summer recess began in July, although other key pieces of legislation still need consideration by the Lords.
The Government has broken with usual practice by announcing details of parliamentary business only for the first week after the end of the holiday period on September 8. This leaves a very narrow window in the timetable for the following week in which the Bill could be passed by the Commons before MPs break up again for the party conference season.
Ministers want the latest bid to ban hunting - a popular issue among party activists - to be up and running before delegates gather for Labour’ s final conference before the next general election. This will give Mr Blair and easier ride at the conference, although he is still likely to face plenty of opposition from party members on other key issues of the day.
The Lords can be forced to accept the will of MPs under the terms of the Parliament Act only if a Bill, blocked in the previous parliamentary session, has been sent to the House of Lords at least 30 days before the end of the current session. The next Queen’s Speech, marking the start of the next session, is expected in the final fortnight of November, making it possible that the Bill could be delayed until early October and still reach the statute books before the election.
However, pro-hunting campaigners are bound to step up their opposition to the Bill, including possible legal challenges under the Human Rights Act and a campaign of civil disobedience, including the withholding of tax payments. One thing is certain – even if the Bill clears the Commons in one day, the battle to prevent it going onto the statute books will last a lot longer.