17 JUNE 2000, Page 16


Boris Johnson discovers that what gets the goat of the Labour MP Gordon Prentice is that people actually enjoy hunting

WHEN the hounds have been turned into dogfood, and the wind whispers in the empty kennels, and the moths have devoured the last pink coat, and the horses have all been boiled up for glue; and when the towns and the uplands are rife with foxes, mangy or gangrenous from botched attempts to kill them with guns, then, per- haps, people will look back at the Blair gov- ernment of the turn of the millennium and ask themselves how it came about that an ancient liberty was abolished. How did Blair, who seemed so petrified by the last Countryside Rally, and who has allowed himself to be kicked about by the Women's Institute, screw up the courage to take on the hunters? He didn't, of course. He was, or so the gov- ernment says, trapped into doing so.

It is customary these days to say that backbench MPs don't count for much.

Gordon Prentice has proved that a sin- gle parliamentarian, by tabling a judi- cious amendment to a government Bill, can still blight the lives of thousands and wreck a part of our culture. No one seems to have a good word to say for the 49-year-old Labour MP for Pendle.

One Labour minister said he was 'horri- ble' to behold, as Jack Straw executed his U-turn and promised to turn the full might of Labour's majority on the hunt- ing minority. Mr Prentice has a reputa- tion as a lemon-voiced left-winger, who resigned over the government's han- dling of single-parent benefit. He voted against Maastricht. He has bashed the supermarkets. He has mocked the Third Way and said that the government has not the faintest idea what its devolution pro- gramme is supposed to achieve.

He has satirised Mandelson's links with Dolly Draper and other lobbyists; in fact, the more one studies his record, the sounder he seems to be. And, when I run him to earth, he speaks with all the sardonic fluen- cy one expects from a former president of the union at Glasgow University. When I tax him with the job losses involved in a ban, admittedly not the strongest point in the pro-hunting case, he makes fun of me.

'Well, Boris, jobs are being created and lost all the time, and I don't say that in a flippant way. But no doubt there were still people who earned a living when bear- baiting was still a lawful activity, and no doubt people made a living from cock- fighting. But Parliament banned those pas- times.' Ah yes, the bear-baiting point. We on our side of the argument must admit that this is a good one; not a knock-out point, but a decent one. Of course the hunters can respond and point out that the very raison d'être of bear-baiting was tor- ment, while hunting is an efficient way of keeping foxes under control. But it strains the imagination to believe that foxes some- how take it in their stride to be chased and killed by hounds.

We have to admit, in the phrase of the Burns Report, that their 'welfare is seriously compromised' — a piece of jargon that seems likely to enter the language in the way of 'terminate with extreme prejudice'. (Your mission, Captain Willard, is to find Col. Kurtz and seriously compromise his welfare.) The trouble with Mr Prentice, though, is that he is not really interested in the ani- mal welfare point; or, at least, he says only that 'the animal welfare thing is an aspect'. What gets his goat is that people should enjoy hunting, he says. It is the mens rea of the hunter that he finds repulsive. 'That is what distinguishes those who pursue blood- sports from those who don't. I haven't come across someone who rides with the hunt who doesn't say that they enjoy it.'

And he just hates the way the hunt car- ries on, and treats the countryside as though it was made for them to prance around on. 'It is remarkable that if I want to play a game of football on an estate that belongs to the Duke of somewhere or other, then I would be given short shrift; the police would be there in five minutes to turf me off. But it doesn't seem to work like that when the hunt clatters across the property of other people. They seem to be immune from prosecution.'

Gordon Prentice, in short, is a class war- rior. He seriously claims that hunting can survive only because the landowners instruct the poor shivering tenants to allow the hunt through, leaving such enormous divots, says Prentice, that 'the land can take a year to recover'. Perhaps Prentice has picked up a thing or two about farming from his time as leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council (when he and his colleagues contrived to blow £400 million on a complicated interest- rate 'swap), but that sounds like balls to me.

If you want proof of his deep muddle, it lies in the question of so-called gunpacks, popular in some Welsh Labour con- stituencies, where hounds are used to drive foxes towards the guns. 'There isn't a problem about using dogs to flush an animal from cover,' he says.

According to Prentice, gunpacks are fine, absolutely fine, by which one must assume he means a fox is content to be persecuted — and sometimes ripped to bits — by dogs in Labour constituencies, but not to be pursued by equestrian toff-infested hunts.

But when I accuse him of inconsis- tency, he becomes exasperated and says that he must be off. I try the angling point, but no dice. Fish are dif- ferent, he says. 'If I swat a fly that's bothering me, that's an insect, not a wild mammal.' But what about the great mountain of man's cruelty to ani- mals? Why move this pebble — hunt- ing — rather than any other? What about blapping poor stumbling cows in the abattoir? What about kosher, Halal? 'I'll leave that for you to explore in your column, Boris,' he says in his vinegary way.

'Are you a vegetarian?' I ask him in despair. 'Oh God,' he snorts. Of course he isn't. It's nothing to do with loving animals, and all to do with hating certain people.

It is a melancholy fact that nothing stands between Mr Prentice and a final, gloating tri- umph, except a Tory victory at the next elec- tion, and it is, of course, ridiculous to blame him for behaving as he does. One might rea- sonably criticise the Labour government for betraying its alleged liberal ideals, and pathet- ically prosecuting its 'class war'. But you can't blame Prentice. It is in his nature. You might as well blame a dog for chasing a fox.