16 MARCH 2002, Page 24


As Parliament prepares for a new vote on hunting, Kevin Maguire reveals how the PM has schmoozed both sides in the debate

SHORTLY before the general election, as the funeral pyres of sheep and cattle slaughtered in foot-and-mouth zones still burned across much of the British countryside. Tony Blair's right-hand man secretly met leading lights in the animal-welfare lobby. Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's bagman, told representatives of the RSPCA, League Against Cruel Sports and International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) that Labour would ban hunting with hounds in England and Wales if the party won its historic second full term. There would be no compromise, he vowed. The middle way,' the Downing Street chief of staff reassured the group, is dead.'

With the black smoke still pouring from the millions of incinerated carcasses, and with rural areas still in uproar, Powell pleaded with those present to trust Blair, and avoid making hunting an issue in the 2001 campaign, The anti-hunters were impressed. Ifaw, on the militant wing of the animal lobby, had been planning to put up posters portraying Blair as a James Bond-style baddie under the heading 'A Licence to Kill'. The plans were shelved. The Political Animal Lobby (Pal), which was set up by Ifaw in 1990. had already donated Li million to the party before the 1997 poll. It now wrote another two cheques. totalling £47,582, to invest in a Labour victory. Although not matching Pal's previous largesse, the latest bung was still one of the biggest collected by Millbank, topping donations from affiliated trade unions such as Aslet Ucatt and the RMT.

At about the same time as these clandestine discussions with the anti-hunting forces, Powell also privately saw prominent figures in the Countryside Alliance. John Jackson, chairman of the pro-hunting body, appears to have been spun a very different story. Blair, said the PM's man, recognised

the damage inflicted on the countryside by the foot-and-mouth crisis, and was interested in finding a solution that recognised the rights of hunters while addressing animalwelfare concerns. The middle way, insisted Powell, was an 'interesting option' and deserved further consideration. He raised the possibility of No. 10 supporting licensed hunting rather than an outright ban. He again added, however, that the PM was anxious to avoid it emerging as a major election issue. This would give him and his colleagues room for manoeuvre and would enable them to avoid being forced off the fence too early. In the event, the Countryside Alliance was noticeable by its absence during the campaign.

So who heard the truth from Powell? One of the enduring features of Blair's leadership has been his ability to be all things to all men and women; the regular guy seeking to smile his way out of difficult decisions. From the euro referendum to permitting his new best friend George Bush to use UK bases to construct Washington's nuclear shield, we think that we know where he stands, yet he refuses to give a simple answer to a straight question. As he tramps the Buckinghamshire lanes around Chequers, hands deep in the pockets of his Barbour, wrestling with Iraq and Afghanistan as well as with public-service reform and the crisis in transport, Mr Blair must wish that foxhunting would just go away.

Those who have a good claim to know the mind of the Prime Minister maintain that, unlike his wife Cherie, he is no antihunter by conviction, and that he harbours distaste rather than outright hostility towards an activity he regards as an anachronism; nor does he regard banning it as a priority. Yet on Monday next week, MPs, followed by peers the following day, will be asked in an 'indicative vote' to signify support for either a full ban, or the middle way of licensed hunting, or for self-regulation.

Both sides can thank Stephen Byers for the opportunity to walk through the division lobbies: the government rather cynically announced a pre-Easter debate earlier this month to distract attention from the troubles of the Transport Secretary. The vote is by way of a thank you to backbench Labour MPs who saved the skin of an avowed liar, by standing up one after another and blaming the rail disaster on everyone except the man sitting in the Whitehall driving seat.

In what can only be called a bizarre demonstration of political priorities, a series of Bills was sacrificed to make time for an issue which, as we have seen, the PM considers a sideshow. On the shelf went the Criminal Justice Bill, recommended by the Macpherson inquiry into the death of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence and intended to sweep away the 'double jeopardy' rule. On the back-burner went the Extradition Bill, once hailed as vital to fasttrack the removal of terrorism suspects from Britain. House of Lords reform? Forget legislation this session, In the Labour party manifesto, square brackets surrounded a blank space on the future of hunting until the very final drafts as No. 10 searched for a way of keeping everyone happy. The formula, finally printed on page 23 of Ambitions for Britain, in a section on culture and sport rather than on animal welfare or the countryside, gives the Prime Minister the wriggle room he so enjoys:

The House of Commons, elected in 1997, made clear its wish to ban fox-hunting. The House of Lords took a different view (and reform has been blocked). Such issues are rightly a matter for a free vote, and we will give the new House of Commons an early opportunity to express its view. We will then enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on this issue. If the issue continues 10 be blocked, we will look at how the disagreement can be resolved. We have no intention whatsoever of placing restrictions on the sports of angling and shooting.

The antis and the pros can take heart from the wording, but the promise to resolve any disagreement, rather than to ensure that a ban is implemented if elected MPs vote for it, gives a clue to the PM's private thinking. He is, as his allies make clear, in no mood to use the Parliament Act to push through the ban, and if prohunting peers are clever, they will next week back the middle way instead of going head-to-head with a Commons chamber certain to support a ban. Nor has the Scottish fiasco gone unnoticed in No. 10.

Labour MPs, led by Tony Banks — the William Wilberforce of animal rights who denounces the middle way as 'licensed killing' — have the bit between their teeth. They will not let the Prime Minister go. Opposition to hunting runs deep on the backbenches. For some it is on chippy, anti-toff grounds, but for most (including Banks) it is a matter of principle, and the ties with the animal-welfare lobby are

strong. Banks's sister, Angela Beveridge, whose work for the West Ham MP was once funded by Ifaw, runs Pal in Britain. His wife, Sally, was until recently a director of Haw. Others, including Elliot Morley, the animal-welfare minister, have also benefited while in opposition from Pal donations, and in 1994 Morley went to Prince Edward Island, Canada, courtesy of Ifaw, to save seals.

Blair, a PM who sets great store by opinion polls and focus groups, is also aware that a ban, while unpopular with a significant minority, would be popular with the majority. A MORI survey recently recorded 72 per cent in favour of banning the hunting of foxes, 80 per cent in favour of banning the hunting of deer, and 81 per cent in favour of a ban on the hunting of hares. He remains, however, uncomfortable with the notion of a complete ban, and No. 10 is kicking around a series of options. Should they ban hare-coursing and impose strict controls on fox-hunting? It may all be to play for.

When Powell promised the animal-welfare lobby that hunting with hounds would be consigned to history, he added two riders. The first was that Blair had to secure a big enough Commons majority to get the ban through Parliament. With the Tories making a net gain of precisely one, and Labour winning by a margin of 167 seats, the £47,582 looks like a wise investment.

The second qualification, said Powell, was that there was no 'backlash' in the countryside against the ban. This, the antis now fear, was a green light for the pros to march on London and give Blair an excuse to adopt the middle way as his latest Third Way. Powell misled either the animal-welfare or the countryside lobby on behalf of his boss; and one side or the other will never forgive the Prime Minister.

Kevin Maguire is chief reporter of the Guardian.