Conservative MPs face a backlash over hunting ban
Conservative MPs opposed to repeal of the hunting ban face a backlash from hunt campaigners in their constituencies, it has emerged.
Barely a few hours after he became Prime Minister, David Cameron spoke to a leading member of the hunting community instrumental in moves to overturn the ban on hunting with hounds.
“Tell me how to do it and I will do it,” Mr Cameron said. Despite having arguably more pressing issues such as the economy on his mind, the new Prime Minister was clearly eager to find a way to deliver on his oft repeated promise to the traditionalists of rural England, a community he comes from after all and one he is unlikely to want to betray.
No one close to Mr Cameron believes that he is anything but still personally wedded to the commitment he made in opposition to bring forward repeal of the hunting ban with a government bill in government time.
Whether he can deliver on the promise, however, is looking increasingly in doubt.
In the past few days, suspicions have grown that the issue has been kicked into the longest possible grass.
Claims by the anti-hunting lobby that more than 20 of the new intake Tory MPs would not support repeal have caused particular disquiet.
There is anger not least because some of those new MPs were helped to win their seats by hunt supporters who provided crucial manpower on the ground during the election, putting hundreds of thousands of leaflets through doors.
The pro-hunting campaign group Vote-OK, which poured supporters into a hundred marginal seats, say they made the difference in more than 20 constituencies.
One of those was South Thanet, where Laura Sandys achieved a 7.45 per cent swing with the help of hunt supporters who leafleted for her.
Hunting enthusiasts in the area say they are “baffled and hurt” that she has now turned her back on them, declaring herself against repeal.
Such MPs face a backlash and risk being blacklisted from receiving any help from traditionalist activists at the next election.
Chris Austin, joint master of the Kimblewick Hunt, which covers parts of Buckinghamshire and surrounding counties, said: “A lot of people gave a lot of help to candidates before the last election, and obviously those candidates benefited from that help. I think it will be more difficult to get that help at the next election.”
The desertion of as many as 22 Tory MPs to the anti-hunting cause means the numbers are tight.
The latest calculation by the hunting lobby is that 300 MPs are pro-repeal while the anti-hunting lobby has 280 to 290 supporters in the Commons.
The League Against Cruel Sports claims repeal would be defeated by 310 votes to 253, with 23 MPs undecided.
A free vote soon would particularly irritate the Liberal Democrats, with 42 of the 57 Lib Dem MPs opposed to lifting a ban, including the party leader, Nick Clegg.
It has been noted bitterly by hunting people that Clegg’s much vaunted review of “bad Labour law” failed to mention the Hunting Act as an example of legislation which wrongly criminalises ordinary citizens.
What is clear is that with the numbers so tight, neither Mr Cameron nor the hunting community wants to risk losing a vote on repeal, which could result in a strengthened ban, so the settled strategy seems to be to hold fire.
“If hunting was on the edge and it was repeal or die we would go for it, but it’s not,” said one hunt member. “Most hunts are getting on very nicely thank you, so we can afford to wait to get it right.”
How they get it right remains to be seen. One option is to wait until the West Lothian question is settled. It is likely that most of the 59 Scottish MPs will vote to continue the ban, although the six SNP MPs have said they will abstain.
The Conservatives have been quietly sounding out a proposal of English votes for English laws for some time and have promised a commission.
With around 50 “anti” votes excluded in a vote involving only English MPs, the situation would look very different. But such a strategy is fraught with difficulties and hardly assured of majority support in itself.
Whatever he decides, there have been gestures of intent from Mr Cameron to the hunting community.
Most crucially, the Prime Minister recently set up a Hunting Regulatory Authority ready to scrutinise the newly-legalised sport when repeal goes through.
The Labour peer Lord Donoughue has been made chairman with a view to overseeing the regulation of hunting if and when the time comes.
It is not exactly the resolution many had been hoping for. Riding high in the polls in 2008, Mr Cameron promised a free vote followed by a simple one line government Bill in government time to repeal the 2004 Labour ban, denounced by hunting people as “class warfare”.
The pledge was repeated in the Tories’ election manifesto and again in the coalition agreement. But it was conspicuously absent from the Queen’s Speech as the problems over numbers set in.
There were rumours that Mr Cameron was thinking of palming the issue off on a backbench Tory MP to test the water with a private members’ bill instead.
Now insiders say he will simply wait until the Tories “have the numbers”, in other words it could be after the next election even.
But Mr Cameron knows he cannot risk looking like he has his priorities wrong. Tony Blair used up 700 hours of parliamentary time on hunting.
People would not forgive a government that wasted yet more time, nor a hunting lobby that demonstrated on the streets, when Britain was fighting its way out of recession.
“We know we could get half a million people marching on Parliament Square tomorrow but what would be the point?” said one huntsman. “We have got to be realistic about the political situation, about where this stands in the public’s priorities.”
What makes hunts happier to stick with the status quo is the policing situation. As they attempt to continue a form of trail hunting which is within the law, huntsmen claim officers are not turning up at meets with anything like the regularity they used to, in response to hunt saboteurs who report alleged breaches of the rules.
Whether a Tory Home Secretary, Theresa May, has given any hint to police of where their priorities should now lie is unclear, but hunting people on the ground do report a change.
“In the past if the sabs called the police and told them we’d just killed a fox two squad cars would be there within minutes,” said one huntsman. “Now we never see the police.”
The only thing really stopping hunting is the weather. Some 300 Boxing Day meets were grounded by snow and ice.
This weekend, many hunts were fog bound with riders struggling to see more than a hundred yards in front. The way ahead for repeal is looking just as obscure.