Theresa May will give MPs a free vote on repealing the ban on fox hunting if her party wins the general election. The policy appears to have come as a surprise to many, despite the fact that it was in the last two Conservative manifestos. Will it affect the way people vote?
Despite their sport being banned by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 2004, huntsmen and women have not gone away – it’s just that they now have to tread a precarious legal minefield when they don their riding gear and head out into the field.
Pursuit of live animals, such as foxes, hares, mink and deer has been replaced by trail hunting, which sees hounds and riders follow a pre-laid scent along an agreed route.
The hunting lobby has never stopped pushing to be allowed to kill their quarry again. They argue that the ban has done nothing to protect foxes, which they say are now shot by farmers to control the population.
The League Against Cruel Sports and other anti-hunting campaign groups are equally passionate about keeping the ban. Hundreds of them turned out on Monday afternoon for a protest march to Downing Street.
But does anyone else care?
Theresa May said she didn’t think it was the “most important” issue facing people at the general election in an ITV/Facebook live interview and although she has “always supported fox hunting” it would be up to MPs to decide.
A vote on repealing the ban was in the last two Conservative election manifestos, but it never happened because the Lib Dems would have blocked it in 2010 and the pro-hunting lobby was not confident of getting a majority in the last Parliament. So, in one sense, Mrs May is merely sticking with a longstanding Conservative commitment.
She says she has never taken part in a hunt herself, unlike her predecessor David Cameron, but she has said she would vote in favour of overturning the ban because “some of the other forms of dealing with foxes can be cruel”.
Her views were echoed by Tim Bonner, chief executive of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance.
“The political left have a long-held obsession with hunting but all the evidence is that it is utterly irrelevant to the way the vast majority of people vote in elections,” he said.
“Before the 2015 election less than 0.25% of voters listed it as an issue that would affect their vote and there is no reason to believe that this election will be any different.”
Is he right?
Research by pollsters YouGov suggests fox hunting is one of the few policies in the Conservative manifesto that people can remember.
Social care reform was the policy that stuck in voters’ minds the most, with 36% recall, according to the online survey carried out on 22 and 23 May. That was followed by “going ahead with Brexit” and means-testing the winter fuel allowance, and other headline-grabbing issues.
“Legalising fox hunting” got 6% – more than some of the party’s headline policies such as increasing funding for the NHS and reducing taxes.
‘Tear it apart’
Research by ComRes, for the Daily Mirror, suggested keeping the fox hunting ban was the most popular policy in Labour’s manifesto – ahead of banning zero-hours contracts and keeping the state pension age at 66 – among supporters of all parties, including 64% of Conservative voters.
And the party has been making the most of the issue on the campaign trail, with former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott touring the country with a cuddly toy fox to accuse Theresa May of wanting to “tear it apart”.
The Blue Fox Group, the Conservative campaign against fox hunting, says it has had “tons” of emails from Conservative supporters, and those thinking of voting Conservative for the first time, who are “surprised and dismayed” by Mrs May’s stance.
“Some people are actually saying that they will withhold their vote on this issue,” co-founder Lorraine Platt told the BBC.
“They feel quite strongly about it. They are very surprised that it’s in the manifesto. We have received so many emails from people. People saying with all that’s going on in the world and the Brexit focus how on earth can this free vote be included in the Conservative Party manifesto?”
The majority of Conservative MPs in the last Parliament were in favour of overturning the ban but Mrs Platt claims a growing number of Conservative politicians are getting behind her campaign, meaning the party would have to have a large majority to make it a realistic prospect.
An email from the chairman of the Council of Hunting Associations, Lord Mancroft, to his members, leaked to the Daily Mirror, described the 8 June general election as “the chance we have been waiting for” to overturn the ban.
“A majority of 50 or more would give us a real opportunity for repeal of the Hunting Act (HA), or perhaps an alternative legislative measure,” says the leaked email.
It adds: “The hunting community has never given up fighting for our sport, for our hounds, and to enable our children and their children to enjoy both, as we have.”
Local hunts are being encouraged to send members to marginal seats to help pro-hunt candidates with leafleting and door-knocking, through the Vote OK campaign. They say it is all above board because they have registered with the Electoral Commission as a “non-party campaign”.
But there is still some scepticism in the hunting community about whether the ban will ever be overturned.
The chairman of the Dulverton West Foxhounds Supporters Club told Somerset’s County Gazette: “The Tories promised us there would be a vote before the last election and they let us down then. I think this is just a ploy to get farmers and hunting people on side.
“The Hunting Act has never worked and needs to be repealed, nothing is done to control foxes now. It is a case of town people trying to tell country people, who have lived on these lands for generations, what to do.”
Anti-hunt campaigners believe they have public opinion on their side – but will it actually change anyone’s vote on 8 June?
YouGov’s research director, Anthony Wells, says people who react badly to the fox hunting policy “probably didn’t vote Tory in the last five elections” – but the policy meant they were less likely to be convinced by Conservative attempts at softening the party’s traditional image.