Peter Oborne

The last act of a desperate Prime Minister — to bring back the Hunting Bill

The last act of a desperate Prime Minister — to bring back the Hunting Bill

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As Tony Blair mulled matters over last week at Government House, Bermuda, where he and his family spent Easter at a very reasonable £27 per night, the future must have looked ghastly. It was not just the prospect of this weekend’s meeting with President Bush, tricky though that undoubtedly is. The Bush visit was at first envisaged as a modest attempt to give a boost to the US President’s now fading electoral fortunes. The Kerry campaign was as dismayed as Bush strategists were elated by this most irregular attempt by a British prime minister to tamper with the US domestic electoral cycle. It is puzzling that the British Labour party has not caused more trouble as Tony Blair continues to pander to the most right-wing US president in living memory. Blair, however, has taken certain steps not to inflame domestic susceptibilities. He has, for instance, left the Congressional Medal, controversially awarded him thanks to the intervention of the US President, unclaimed. Tony Blair is one of the very few British prime ministers to be gazetted with this honour. His failure to show up and collect it after almost a year, though prudent, can only be seen as a snub to his American admirers.

The vexatious trip to visit George Bush is by no means the greatest of Tony Blair’s troubles. This May and June now loom ahead like an obstacle course. Borders to the first EU accession countries from central Europe open on 1 May, doubtless soon to be followed by the first Romany caravans to trundle across English Channel, and with them a fresh immigration row. The technical handover of power in Iraq is scheduled for June, a moment fraught with hazard. Then there is the momentous issue of the European constitution, due to receive Tony Blair’s signature at Göteborg in the middle of the month.

Each one of these issues requires tremendously delicate handling by an already out-of-form and lacklustre Prime Minister. Their convergence in such a short space of time threatens havoc. This unpropitious conjunction comes as Britain sleepwalks towards the worst industrial relations situation for two decades. There are unmistakable signs that Tony Blair is to pay a heavy price for his repeated failures of nerve over public services reform. He has made the elementary mistake of handing out cash without extracting concessions for productivity improvements in return. The results are predictable. The Public and Commercial Services Union has already called its workers out; railway employees are voting on a midsummer walkout; and there are mutterings from the teachers.

The local and European elections come in the midst of all this. The government has done its best to rig the result. Sam Younger of the Electoral Commission has yielded to pressure and permitted widespread ‘pilot schemes’ for compulsory postal voting in Labour heartland areas in the Midlands and the North. Nevertheless this is likely to be the biggest local drubbing for a sitting government since John Major’s administration ten years ago.

Next month marks the tenth anniversary of the death of John Smith, the event which opened the way to Tony Blair’s own leadership of the Labour party. Smith has always been an ambiguous figure for Tony Blair. He conspired against Smith when he was leader, while under Blair, John Smith’s brief period in charge has practically been written out of official Labour party history. Smith, who stood for a different kind of Labour, remains a standing reproach to the media-obsessed, meretricious, modernising doctrine which Tony Blair has made all his own. The celebrations and reassessments of John Smith’s life this summer will be subversive occasions, reminders that Labour is capable of taking a different kind of direction from the one in which Tony Blair has led it over the last ten years.

The Prime Minister is very low in the water this weekend. Downing Street has the air of a departure lounge, so many staff are leaving. Roger Liddle, the genial, blinking European expert, is the most recent to jump. Tony Blair has lost control of his domestic agenda, while his overseas adventure is not far from collapse. It is by no means impossible that Tony Blair might choose this summer’s tenth anniversary to step down and hand over to Gordon Brown, an event which some MPs believe might be followed by an autumn general election.

If Blair decides to carry on, then he urgently needs to reconnect with his sour and almost disfranchised Labour MPs. The easiest, cheapest and most certain method is to bring back the Bill to ban hunting, which ended up becalmed in the House of Lords last year. Ministers say privately that the decision to ‘resolve the issue’ during this Parliament has already been taken in principle, though the timing has not been set. The Hunting Bill could be brought back under the provisions of the Parliament Act, rushed through the Commons in a day, and straight to the Lords, which would be powerless to stop it.

There are complications. Last year’s Bill fell foul of human rights law, meaning that new provisions are required to compensate those who lose their jobs from the ban. But only an unchanged Bill can go back to the Lords under Parliament Act rules. There are ways round this problem. The government could introduce a compensation Bill alongside the original banning Bill. Or it could bring in an entirely new Bill, wait for it to grind to a halt in the Lords, then use the Parliament Act to railroad it through both Houses during the next session of Parliament, starting this November. Either way, hunting would be banned by the start of 2005.

Some Labour strategists see tremendous advantages in this course of action. It would galvanise Labour activists and MPs, many of whom are obsessed with hunting. The inevitable struggle with the House of Lords, allied to loud, angry protests from country folk, would inject an entirely spurious but for all that welcome sense of old-fashioned radicalism into Tony Blair’s administration. Very little political will would be needed to push the measure through. Indeed, the Prime Minister needs political will to fend it off. Nevertheless a Bill to ban hunting this summer would inflame and divide the country at a time when Tony Blair speaks of the need for unity. It would mark a return to ugly, intolerant, class-based legislation. Very shortly before he died, Roy Jenkins told the Prime Minister that he ‘could not conceive a more illiberal act’ than banning fox-hunting. They were pretty well the last words he ever uttered to Tony Blair, and perhaps they still echo in his ears.