PRIME MINISTER Tony Blair has promised to make hunting the "nuclear issue" of the next election by using it to embarrass the Tories and push through fundamental reform of the House of Lords, using the peers’ inevitable opposition to the Government’s Hunting Bill as an excuse, writes Nick Mays.
Whitehall sources confirmed that the PM was expected to use Thursday's Cabinet meeting to set out his plan for forcing legislation to ban the sport through Parliament by the end of October, with the Bill due to be discussed and voted on in the Commons in just one day later this month.
The Bill would then be passed to the Lords when Peers will be given two days to debate the measure, which has to be passed before the parliamentary session finishes next month.
The Prime Minister's supporters claim he has put aside his reservations and is ready to criminalize hunting with hounds as a way of providing Labour with a radical cause to galvanise ‘apathetic’ voters and garner support for the Party.
They say he is even prepared to see important legislation such as the Children Bill or the Pensions Bill dumped to make time to get a hunting Bill through the Lords and on to the statute book.
If peers allow the legislation through, it will become law before the election, which is expected next spring, but crucially, the ban would not come into force until after polling day.
Government sources said that by postponing implementation, Labour could challenge the Tories during the election campaign to say if they would repeal the measure.
"We hope they will, because we would then campaign to remind people that if they want the ban to stay, they will have to vote Labour," one ministerial source said.
If the Bill is blocked, Mr Blair will be urged by his supporters to include a pledge to scrap the 92 remaining hereditary peers and force through total reform of the upper house.
A Lords veto would trigger the Parliament Act, which allows a Government to force a measure past the Lords one year after its introduction.
In the event of a Lords defeat, the Government will rely on the Speaker, Michael Martin, to trigger use of the Parliament Act in an attempt to underscore its claim that pressure for a ban comes from the elected Commons rather than from the Government.
"This approach leaves us with the delicious prospect of a win-win situation," said a Government source. "If it gets through then we make keeping the ban the nuclear issue of the election. But if the Lords block it we can retaliate by putting a pledge for fundamental Lords reform in our manifesto."
"A hunting Bill would take five or six days to get through," said Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader in the Lords. "It will require a great deal of discussion."
The Prime Minister has been told by law officers that his delaying tactic will leave the Bill open to legal challenge, because of parliamentary procedure, which means that to use the Parliament Act the new Bill should bear exactly the same words as the previous hunting Bill.
This stated: "This Act shall come into force at the end of the period of three months beginning with the date on which it is passed."
Ministers believe that they may be able to get around this by arguing that the absence of this sentence does not change the sense of the Bill, but pro-hunting groups are certain to challenge this.
The Prime Minister is determined to avoid a run-in with rural voters and pro-hunting supporters before and during the election and is planning to insert legal clauses into the Bill that would delay its implementation until after the general election, which is expected in May or the autumn next year.
Mr Blair, who was finalising the plans last weekend, has told ministers that he is determined to avoid a campaign of civil disobedience by hunt supporters, which could rival the poll tax riots, before an election.
The Conservative spokesman on hunting, James Gray, said: "If he does that, a million people would riot anyway from now until the general election. This would end up in the courts until the cows come home. I suspect what is really happening is that Tony Blair is fast giving up on the idea of a ban."
The Government's compromise plan in 2003 to allow hunting to continue under licensing was rejected and replaced by MPs with a ban on all hunting with dogs, which led to the unedifying sight of Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael effectively ‘disowning’ his own Bill. The legislation was later thrown out by the Lords who reinserted the Bill’s original wording to allow hunting to continue under licence.
Meanwhile, the Countryside Alliance is planning a dual legal challenge that it hopes will scupper the Government’s plans.
Pro-hunting lawyers are to argue that plans to use the Parliament Act are illegal. They are also expected to argue that a hunting Bill would breach human rights legislation.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has said that depriving people of income from contracts relating to hunting would be in breach of EU human rights law.
A wave of pro-hunting demonstrations, including one at this year's Labour party conference and several at Westminster, are also being planned.