As Devon’s hunts rode out on Boxing Day, the Government admitted that it could not hope to win a vote legalising fox hunting before the next general election.
Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, told The Daily Telegraph that David Cameron cannot repeal Labour’s ban on foxhunting. He said there was no immediate prospect of winning a Commons vote on making hunting legal again.
On the other side of the debate was the League Against Cruel Sports which said it would spend more than £1 million on professional investigators and former police officers to monitor Boxing Day hunts.
The League said: “We are intensifying our campaign against illegal hunting. We have just done some polling which consistently shows that three-quarters of this country want to see fox hunting stay illegal.”
Earlier this month the RSPCA spent £326,000 on legal action against the Heythrop Hunt, with which David Cameron has ridden in the past. The hunt admitted four charges of intentionally hunting a fox with dogs on land in the Cotswolds, and was fined.
Perhaps optimistically, the Countryside Alliance, which represents the hunting fraternity, seem convinced that the Government will carry out their promise of a free vote and that they will finally win. Sir Barney White-Spunner, their chief executive, said he was ‘confident’ that the act would be repealed in the long-term.
He said: “If we are going to go for some form of repeal it will take a huge amount of time. But I’m confident that the act will be repealed and in the meantime the Prime Minister will deliver what he can.”
However, their promise to allow a free vote on repealing the hunt ban raises real problems for the Conservatives.
Certainly, many traditional Conservative MPs oppose the ban. Yet, a group of Tories first elected in 2010 in urban seats say it should stay. Added to Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, the numbers just aren’t there to overturn the ban and it’s unlikely there will be in the future.
Also, public opinion remains firmly against any attempt to lift the legal ban according to a new survey by Ipsos Mori. It found that 76% are against fox hunting being legalised, rising to 81% for deer hunting and 83% for hare coursing.
It looks like Tory strategists would like to quietly drop their commitment to a repeal due to the danger of alienating urban voters and of reminding people of their Nasty Party label. The association of a modern political party with a rural elite in red jackets chasing a small mammal isn’t a vote-winner in modern Britain – and would give their opponents an easy target.
On the other hand, a good deal of Conservative support and funding is to be found in the Shires. So, there’s a balancing act between appearing modern to urban constituencies while preventing traditionalist Tory voters (already disorientated by the gay marriage issue) from drifting off in the direction of UKIP. So far, vague promises to the Countryside Alliance that some day soon hunting will be made legal again seen to have been effective.
It remains to be seen how long it will take before the hunting fraternity realises that tomorrow never comes…