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Which Political Beasts Will Get Ripped Apart in Hunting Ban Free Vote Debate?

26/05/2015 15:11 BST | Updated 25/05/2016 10:59 BST

The political winds appeared to be blowing in a different direction when the Tories outlined a pledge to hold a free vote on the Hunting Act.

Long before the heads of Clegg and Miliband rolled, pollsters had the Conservatives and Labour neck and neck . To describe the election result as the biggest political surprise in living history is not hyperbole.

So one has to wonder, when Cameron decided to dangle the hunting free vote carrot in front of a largely uninterested electorate, did he ever think he'd have to go through with it?

Survey after survey reflects the consistent opinion of the majority of the British public: people don't like hunting. The chasing down and ripping apart of wild animals with packs of trained hounds is unpalatable to most people - and less than four per cent of British vets support hunting.

In addition, it's not just the so-called 'Islington crusaders' who take offence, as some pro-hunters would have you believe. Support for the ban remains evenly spread throughout rural and urban communities, with the most recent Ipsos Mori survey showing an approximate 80-20 split in both. And while fox hunting seems to generate the headlines, hare coursing and deer hunting seem even more unpopular.

Throw organisations like the Countryside Alliance into mix - whose support of a range of 'country sports' makes them controversial - and the debate is raging before a single vote is close to being cast.

Over 700 hours of Parliamentary time was spent discussing the issue over a decade ago, prompting the current hunting legislation, and this was only after amendments that were made to appease the House of Lords.

The question on many people's lips is, why, given the current social and economic climate, is hunting topping the agenda again? With nearly 600 foodbanks across the country, and increasing fears about TTIP and the NHS, why was an activity that Cameron himself described as a 'minority pastime', discussed within 48 hours of the Tories march to victory? Surely an odd position to take a mere few days after promoting the 'one nation' rhetoric?

Whether this proposed action will be outlined in the upcoming Queen's speech remains to be seen.

This has once again become a political hand grenade, after the ethics and economics of hunting - both topics worthy of detailed and complex debate - are taken out of the conversation, it becomes a polemically fraught dialogue.

For Cameron, the offer to vote on repeal may have been designed to appease certain segments of the electorate - perhaps the vote he feared losing to Ukip. Had he never had to hold a free vote, he still would have held on to that support, but blamed any coalition partners for not going through with it. Now however, there is the risk of alienating those who dislike hunting for sport, but for whom it wasn't an election issue.

With a growing number of anti-hunting Conservative MPs, including the new sports minister Tracy Crouch, it is not even a party issue. The measly handful of Westminster Lib Dems have been written out of the narrative so far, as have Labour, who are largely anti-hunting.

Now it seems the SNP hold a key - and difficult - position in the debate. While they have so far backed away from voting on matters thought only to affect England, there is increasing pressure on the Nationalists from different quarters. Many feel a vote of conscience and animal welfare should surpass physical boundaries, whilst others feel the SNP would be forgoing their progressive promise if they allowed a repeal of the ban to slip through.

To choose to vote against repeal could set the political stage for the SNP to play into right-wing EVEL rhetoric.

In fact the issue may well be used as a bargaining chip. Cameron certainly seems to have a vested personal interest in seeing hunting legalised, with his father and brother in law involved in the activity, as well as his own prior involvement in the Heythrop Hunt.

In another twist that may annoy the pro-hunting lobby, whispers about bringing about a repeal through the back door, i.e. via a private members bill, have emerged. This would make the chances of a repeal going actually going through somewhat slighter. An amended 'middle-ground' option with careful monitoring of the hunts has also been suggested, while some quiet voices in the hunting community seem to be saying 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

With anti-hunt groups lobbying hard to keep the ban, and public interest reigniting after a decade of dormancy, this is not one that will simply slip under the net. What remains to be seen, is how long the quiet majority will be silenced by the tiny, but very vocal, pro hunting minority.