A Conservative pledge to give MPs a vote to repeal the hunting ban has been shelved indefinitely, amid fears that it would be lost.
In the run-up to the election David Cameron pledged that MPs would be given a free vote on whether or not to repeal Labour’s controversial ban, which he described as a ‘bad piece of legislation’.
The pledge was included in the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats, although officials stressed that an immediate vote was unlikely because of the pressing need to deal with the economic crisis.
Government business managers were concerned that they would look out of touch if they pressed ahead with a vote on hunting at a time when Britain was still dragging itself out of the deepest recession for decades.
But now the vote has been shelved indefinitely, amid growing concern among hunt supporters that they may not have the Parliamentary numbers to win.
The Tory 1922 committee, which represents backbenchers, has advised members not to try and push through a vote independently.
Hunt supporters are continuing to lobby on the issue in the hope of persuading wavering MPs to back their cause.
But it is possible that a vote will not be held before the election planned for 2015.
A pro-hunting source said the balance of support for hunting in the Commons was now ‘too close to call’.
He said hunts were ‘relaxed’ about the prospect of a long delay – not least because the existing law has proved ineffective.
He added: ‘We want the ban lifted, make no mistake. But people have come to an accommodation with the law that works and are prepared to wait until the time is right to sort it out once and for all.’
Although hunting with dogs has been illegal since February 2005, the ban has been widely criticised as ineffective and has led to only a handful of successful prosecutions.
Weeks before the election, Mr Cameron pledged to order a free vote on decriminalising hunting with dogs if he won the election.
He admitted some Tory MPs support Labour’s ban but went further than he had before in voicing his support for reversing it.
‘I always thought the ban was a mistake because I think it is very difficult to enforce,’ he said.
‘I think it’s somewhere where the criminal law shouldn’t go and the mess we have now pretty much proves that.
‘The point is the fox population has to be controlled. Every farmer will tell you that and tell you the methods being used – in more cases gassing and shooting and trapping and snaring – are very cruel.
‘The case on animal welfare grounds for the hunting ban, I’ve always thought was very, very weak.’
In a candid BBC radio interview, Mr Cameron also suggested his upbringing lay behind his support for hunting.
‘I’m a country boy, I was brought up in the countryside and I love walking in the countryside and riding in the countryside, and every aspect of growing up in the countryside,’ he said.
‘I was taught to fish by a wonderful grandfather. I was taught to shoot rabbits by my dad. I’ve always been a country boy and I went hunting.’
He also promised a free vote on the issue for MPs.
‘MPs take different views,’ he said. ‘It will be a free vote in the Commons and if the ban is kept, it’s kept, and if it’s repealed, it’s repealed.’