MPs face a backlash over hunting ban
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
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
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
"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
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
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
Kite, Deputy Political Editor