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Hunting Defeat? How Cameron's Fox Hunt Got the Brush Off

11/08/2015 17:21 BST | Updated 11/08/2016 10:59 BST

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To mark 100 days of the first Conservative government in nearly 20 years, HuffPost UK is running 100 Days of Dave, a special series of blog posts from grassroots campaigners to government ministers, single parents to first-year students, reflecting on what's worked and what hasn't, whilst looking for solutions to the problems we still face.

Why would a newly-elected government, the first Conservative government for almost 20 years, attempt within its first 100 days to do something as unpopular as bringing back hunting?

David Cameron has rightly stressed time and again that this will be a one nation Conservative government, acting on behalf of all parts of the country and sectors of society. But the polling is clear - around eight out of 10 people are opposed to fox hunting. Annual polling shows that people in the countryside are as opposed as those in towns, and two out of three Conservative supporters are also against it.

So why do something so soon after being elected that he knows will be unpopular, even amongst his own supporters?

The 'so soon' question is easy. It is common for new governments to seek to push through potentially controversial measures early, with the momentum of a democratic mandate and a more sympathetic media. Hopefully the electorate will have forgotten by the time the next election comes around.

Why Cameron should choose to spend political capital on trying to bring back a bloodsport when there are so many challenges at home and abroad is more puzzling. Why seek to appease the small (but admittedly vocal) minority who want to chase wild mammals across the countryside for pleasure?

Some claim it is because Cameron used to hunt himself and has a personal desire to bring back the sport. This may be part of the answer. But it is surely not all of it. It is true that those who support hunting are small in number but they are hugely influential. Vote Ok, a pro-hunting lobby group, actively campaigned for Conservative parliamentary candidates who pledged to support repeal of the Hunting Act. Cameron evidently feels that he owes a favour to those who helped get his party elected.

But this wasn't going to be a vote to repeal the Hunting Act was it? It was just a straightforward amendment to bring the law in England and Wales into line with Scotland, wasn't it? Don't be fooled. David Cameron knows that enough of his own MPs are opposed to hunting that he will never win a straight vote to repeal the Hunting Act. So he attempted to bring back hunting by the back door.

The legislation banning hunting is much weaker in Scotland than England and Wales. A recent investigation by the League Against Cruel Sports found that hunts in Scotland appear to be hunting exactly as they did before the ban while claiming to be 'flushing to guns' (chasing foxes out of cover to shoot them, which is legal) - is it any surprise that Cameron wanted to introduce something similar south of the border?

But this wasn't the only exemption proposed. The amendment would have enabled a hunt to chase wild animals as they did before the ban and if accused of illegal hunting take their pick of exemptions - from the need to retrieve a diseased or injured animal to the conducting of research and observation. It would have made the Hunting Act all but unenforceable according to legal experts. No wonder vets and animal welfare organisations were united in opposing it.

It wasn't just the avoidance of a straight vote to bring back hunting that smacked of political calculation. The vote was announced on Budget day (one can only assume to try to reduce damaging headlines) the week before parliament broke up for summer. The customary notice period of a vote in the House of Commons was significantly curtailed. All designed to reduce public awareness and hence public opposition to the move.

It didn't work. According to MPs they heard from thousands of constituents - for many it was more correspondence than they had received on any issue, ever. MPs confirmed that the vast majority were opposed to the move - one claimed that "99.9% were against it". No wonder that MPs from all parties came out publicly against the change.

When it became clear that the vote would be lost the government pulled the plug. The government have blamed the SNP for blocking it. But they have a majority in the Commons - it shouldn't matter what the SNP do. No - the reason why the government couldn't win was because of the increasing numbers of Conservative MPs, including ministers, who opposed the move. Even if the SNP had abstained the government would have lost the vote.

So a defeat for the government. A win for democracy? Perhaps. Clearly the move should never have been mooted such is the public opposition to hunting. But what is clear is that more and more MPs from Cameron's own party are looking at the evidence, listening to their constituents and opposing any relaxation of the ban on hunting. The prime minister would be very unwise to return to the issue.

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