WILL yesterday's traditional Boxing Day fox–hunting meetings prove to be the last ever to be held? Or the penultimate ones? Or just others in the long line of these gatherings held under the threat of some future ban? Business was much as usual yesterday, with both hunters and protestors claiming a record turn–out and pointing to opinion polls that support their very different positions.

The future of hunting with dogs now turns on the Prime Minister's appetite for what could be an extremely troublesome parliamentary fight. There was no mention of renewed legislation on the subject in the Queen's Speech but ministers are said to have given assurances to MPs who want hunting stopped that it will be introduced in the next session of Parliament and forced on to the statute book regardless of opposition in the House of Lords. It is this House of Lords dimension that is likely to give Mr Blair the most trouble. In theory the government could in the end invoke the Parliament Act to overcome the expected rooted opposition in the Upper House to any ban on hunting. However, two former Cabinet secretaries, Lord Armstrong and Lord Wilson, yesterday raised doubts about whether the Parliament Act was ever intended to sustain a Bill based on a free vote of the House of Commons, as any anti–hunting legislation would be. The Parliament Act was introduced in 1949 by a Labour government whose legislative programme was being sabotaged by a hostile House of Lords but it has never been used to overcome opposition to a non–government Bill.

The Prime Minister faces substantial difficulties with the House of Lords as it stands and over his plans for its reform as a wholly appointed chamber. He will not want a messy dispute over the legislation on hunting to get in way of the substantial reforms he believes to be necessary. Yet it may be impossible to separate the two matters. The fox–hunters may well be meeting next Boxing Day and for a few years thereafter.