The Bill to licence hunting, which the Government brought forward last year “remains a perfectly sensible compromise”, Tony Blair admitted late last week at Leeds Castle in Kent, where he was involved in negotiations about the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“We sought a compromise”, said the Prime Minister, when asked about the hunting issue. “Unfortunately it was rejected in the Commons and the Lords. We’ll have to find a way through.”

The apparent U-turn came as a surprise to many, not least because of the timing of Blair’s comment.

However, in a press briefing this morning, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman stressed that the next stage was the House of Lords and “will wait and see what happens there”.

Countryside Alliance Chairman John Jackson explained his interpretation of Blair’s comments: “It was a very strong hint. We will now tell the Lords the Alliance thinks it should amend the banning Bill to allow licensed hunting.”

While calling for peaceful and lawful demonstrations, he added that “it would be helpful also if Alun Michael ceased to inflame the situation by making references to the Parliament Act, and by inviting a rural minority to assert its rights by defeating a Government with a massive urban majority at the ballot box.”

Alun Michael faced troubles of his own elsewhere. Due to head events to celebrate open access to the countryside (Right-to-Roam), this weekend, the Minister for Rural Affairs “reluctantly decided” to withdraw from the first symbolic outing over private land. Threats that the minister would be met by pro-hunt demonstrators left him running scared from his professional domain, and the matter did not end there.

Mr Michael cancelled an interview with HTV Wales in Cardiff at the last minute, which was believed to be as a result of a tip-off that he may face a hostile reception committee, and he similarly cancelled his engagements in Dorset today. And it appears that there will be no let-up from the hunting community:

“There will be continued protests if any member of the Government, and in particular a cabinet member, sticks their head above the parapet and comes out into the countryside”, explained one hunt supporter.