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Fox hunting is political poison for David Cameron and the Tory Party
20th July 2015
Last week David Cameron backed down over his plans to bring back fox hunting by 'fatally amending' the Hunting Act, writes Dominic Dyer. The way he spun it, it was all about SNP interference in English law, but the real problem was opposition within the Conservative Party, which increasingly sees blood sports as a barbaric relic that alienates voters of all persuasions.
As Tory MPs prepare for the summer recess, they are making it very clear to the Prime Minister that he badly miscalculated on the fox hunting issue and has caused much unnecessary anger in their constituencies. Fox hunting is now seen as political poison.
Harold Wilson famously said a week is a long time in politics and David Cameron must be reflecting on these words after his humiliating climb down on the Hunting Act amendment vote.
His attempt last week to weaken the Hunting Act before the summer recess and test the water for full repeal in this Parliament, went spectacularly wrong. And he only has himself to blame.
David Cameron has in many ways been a successful moderniser for the Tory Party over the last decade. He played a key role in decontaminating the Tory brand during the Blair years and gambled on joining a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, that put the Tory Party firmly in the political middle ground on social and economic policies and paved the way for his surprise election victory on May 7th.
However, when it comes to the countryside and blood sports he remains very much a traditional conservative. Now this threatens to damage not just his reputation, but the Tory Party as well.
Growing up as part of a wealthy family at the heart of the political and landowning establishment, blood sports were a major influence on David Cameron's life from a early age. Prior to becoming leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron had stalked and shot deer, been a regular participant at game bird shoots and had rode with his local fox hunt, the Heythrop, in his Oxfordshire constituency.
Before the 2015 General Election, David Cameron wrote in the Countryside Alliance Magazine "I have always been a strong supporter of country sports it is my firm belief that people should have the right to hunt."
The BBC's Andrew Marr might have gone too far by stating in his interview with the Prime Minister during the election campaign, that foxhunting was his "favourite sport which I love", but there can be no doubting how ingrained blood sports are to David Cameron's his view of the countryside.
Cameron's and the Countryside Alliance
The fact that David Cameron started his rise to the top of the Tory Party during the aftermath of Tony Blair's huge election victory in 1997, is also a key factor in his support for hunting.
When the Tories were in the political wilderness after 1997, the Countryside Alliance was formed as a key voice for hunting and landowning interests with close links to the Tory Party, helping to shore up its power base in rural constituencies.
The Countryside Alliance's pro hunt pro blood sports agenda became a key factor in dividing town from country and painting the New Labour Government as an enemy of traditional country pursuits. As a new Tory MP with ambitions to become a future party leader, David Cameron was happy to harness the support of the Countryside Alliance and promote its objectives within the Tory Party.
He pledged as opposition leader to put a commitment to repeal the 2004 Hunting Act in the 2010 Tory election manifesto. The coalition with the Liberal Democrats prevented this being implemented, but the commitment remained in the 2015 Tory Manifesto at David Cameron's insistence.
David Cameron was as surprised as the rest of the nation by the outcome of the General Election on May 7th, which resulted in the first Tory majority government for 23 years.
Within days of the election result the Countryside Alliance and their allies in the media were promoting the view that repeal of the Hunting Act would be subject to a free vote in the House of Commons before Christmas.
Things aren't what they used to be - including the Conservative Party
Liz Truss the newly re-appointed Environment Secretary was given the task of preparing the ground for a vote, with a number of media statements and speeches where she stated that fox hunting should return to our countryside.
The problem for David Cameron was that he failed to recognise that an awful lot had changed in the Tory Party, in the decade since the Hunting Act became law.
As the Tory Parties election prospects improved from 2005 onwards, new Tory MPs started to enter the Commons, who unlike the Prime Minister were not close to the hunting and blood sports lobby. Many came from the financial services sector, or from the media and business world and would not dream of spending their weekends chasing foxes or stalking stags.
We also started to see the emergence of a strong animal welfare and wildlife protection lobby within the Tory Party in the shape of Blue Fox, run by the energetic, well connected and highly effective campaigner Lorraine Platt.
During the coalition government we started to see this new generation of MPs speak out publicly against both fox hunting and badger culling and question the strong links between the Prime Minister and the hunting and farming lobby groups, which were pushing these highly unpopular issues within the government.
After the Tory election victory on May 7th a number of these outspoken MPs such as Tracey Crouch and Dominic Raab, were appointed as Ministers and are now seen as rising stars in the Tory Party.
Oh - and don't forget public opinion
The Prime Minister also failed to realise that the Hunting Act had huge popular support, not least from many Tory voters who had given him a majority on the 7 May.
During the last week over half a million people have signed a petition against the return of fox hunting and MPs have been inundated with hundreds of thousands of complaints from constituents on the weakening of the Hunting Act, on a scale not seen since Tony Blair decided to go to war in Iraq in 2003.
By the time of the planned vote in Parliament on the amendment of the Hunting Act, David Cameron was fighting against public opinion, a significant part of his own Party as well as the Labour Party and the SNP. This was a battle on all fronts which he could not possibly win and he was forced to beat a hasty retreat or face an embarrassing defeat.
The most likely successors to David Cameron as Prime Minister, George Osborne, Theresa May or Boris Johnson are not close to the blood sports lobby and are very unlikely to risk their political credibility on the issue of fox hunting.
Zac Goldsmith, the Tory favourite for London Mayor, has also made it clear that he does not support the amendment or repeal of the Hunting Act.
Indeed a key factor in him being elected Mayor in London, could be the ability to reach out to a green alliance of voters from across the political spectrum who strongly support his opposition to David Cameron on issues such as Heathrow runway extension, badger culling, use of neonicotinoid pesticides and the return of fox hunting.
For most Tory MPs, fox hunting is best kept dead and buried
The Countryside Alliance remains a strong and influential force in the Tory Party, but it no longer has all Tory MPs in a headlock over support for hunting and blood sports.
As Tory MPs prepare for the long summer recess, they are making it very clear to the Prime Minister that he badly miscalculated on the fox hunting issue and has caused much unnecessary anger in their constituencies.
Fox hunting is now seen as political poison and few Tory MPs will want to see this issue re-emerge during this five year Parliament. Many now see David Cameron and his views on fox hunting as representing the past, not the future of the Tory Party.
Dominic Dyer is CEO of the Badger Trust. He spoke at the protest at the Downing Street gates last week against Cameron's plan to 'fatally amend' the Huntin Act (see photo).
Also on The Ecologist: 'Hunting Act 'amendment' is repeal in disguise' by Robbie Marsland.
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