07/10/2016 09:02 BST | Updated 08/10/2017 06:12 BST

Has Andrea Leadsom Got The Message After Tories Rally Against Hunting?

Richard McManus via Getty Images

A few days before the Conservative Party Conference, the front page of the Sunday Telegraph loudly declared that "the Government is determined to hold a vote on scrapping the (Hunting) ban before the next election". Inside it dedicated the best part of a page to how "Fox hunting could be revived with call for free vote".

The story quoted 'a Defra source' who confirmed that "we stand by our manifesto commitment to give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote, with a government bill in government time". A few days earlier, Defra Minister Therese Coffey had answered a written parliamentary question to the same effect.

What exactly prompted the sudden new-found drive to propel the issue to the top of the agenda still remains unclear.

Could it have been that Britain has suddenly found itself being swamped by a plague of foxes that only hunters can fix? Well, firstly, fox-hunting is a cruel sport and is not a form of 'predator control'. Try asking hunts why they're secretly breeding foxes in barns and artificial earths, or how much they charge farmers for their 'pest control services', and watch them squirm. And secondly, the latest figures from the BTO mammal survey show fox populations have actually declined significantly in recent years, by 34% between 1996-2014.

So was it public demand then? Are MPs being inundated by letters and emails demanding a return to wild animals being chased across the countryside and killed by packs of dogs? Has there been a dramatic reversal in the opinion poll published just 9 months ago on Boxing Day which showed that 83% of the public wanted fox hunting to remain illegal and that 70% of Conservative voters also wanted it to stay banned?

The short answer is no. Quite the opposite in fact.

A major new opinion poll published by Ipsos MORI last week not only looks at the figures for the whole country, it also does detailed polling in a number of marginal constituencies, and makes projections for constituencies across England and Wales. Moreover, it asks the crucial question of what voters would think of a Member of Parliament who was pushing for the ban to stay or for it to be lifted.

The figures present probably the clearest picture of public opinion on hunting ever seen. And it couldn't be worse news for Andrea Leadsom - or indeed any candidate publically in favour of bringing back hunting. Large majorities of the public oppose making fox-hunting (84%), deer hunting (88%) or hare hunting (91%) legal again. Support for keeping hunting illegal is now at 73% among Conservative voters, up from 64% in 2013.

Not only that, it rather embarrassingly makes projections that voters in Andrea Leadsom's own constituency -and indeed those in the constituency of Theresa May - are opposed by huge margins to a return to fox-hunting. According to a projection carried out by Ipsos MORI, 81% of voters Andrea Leadsom's constituency back the Hunting Act, with just 18% favouring repeal. In Theresa May's constituency, the figure is 80%.

The message is clear: if the government were to make this an election issue, it can expect public outcry.

A total of 65% of voters would view a candidate more favourably if they supported the ban on hunting - the figure goes up to 71% in rural areas - against just 9% who would favour a pro-hunting candidate.

Conservative MPs defending wafer-thin majorities will look at these latest figures with trepidation. In three of the marginal constituencies polled - Bolton West, Nuneaton, and Thanet South - more than 80% of voters do not want a return to hunting. In the Conservative/Liberal Democrat marginal of Yeovil in the South West, 74% supported the ban on fox hunting, rising to 85% for both deer and hare hunting.

Above all, what this poll shows is that the tiny minority who hanker for the past are indeed living in the past. For the vast majority of people, fox-hunting is no more a 'tradition' than bear-baiting once was. They countenance the prospect of "licensed fox-hunting" (supported by Andrea Leadsom) with as much enthusiasm as they might the licensing of illegal dog-fighting.

To misquote John Cleese's legendary complaint on being sold a dead parrot: "This issue is no more. It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker. This is an ex-issue". Britain, and the Conservative Party, is being sold a dud by Andrea Leadsom. Hunting and killing wildlife for so-called 'sport' is simply not seen by the vast majority of voters as being compatible with a vision of a modern, civilised society.

If the Conservatives hope to hold onto its marginal seats, let alone win those currently held by the opposition, it should heed those wiser counsels advising it to quietly drop the issue and move on.

So could Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom's failure to mention a Free Vote on the Hunting Act in her maiden Conservative Conference speech been a last-minute decision influenced by the poll results and the televised plea from explorer and national treasure Sir Ranulph Fiennes? Whatever the reason at least it appears plans to try and bring back this abhorrent activity have been put on hold, well for at least the time being.

What we really need now is to see the manifesto pledge dropped once and for all, and a strong commitment to enforcing and strengthening wildlife crime laws, including the Hunting Act made.