In Brief

How fox hunting became politically toxic for the Tories

Jeremy Hunt faces backlash from Conservative MPs after promising to hold vote on repealing law popular with wider public

Jeremy Hunt has faced a furious backlash from Conservative MPs who believe his knee-jerk promise to hold a free vote on repealing the foxhunting ban could come back to haunt the party at a future general election.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, the Tory leadership hopeful said foxhunting was part of the countryside’s “heritage” and that he would support a vote if there were a majority in the Commons for it.

Politico’s Jack Blanchard says “the totemic issue which — along with social care reform and the axing of winter fuel payments — cost Theresa May her majority in 2017 is now squarely back on the Tory agenda”. However, the Telegraph says “his comments have sparked outcry among Tory MPs, who questioned his decision at such a critical moment in the leadership contest”.

Conservative MP Julian Knight, tweeted “We can't seriously be talking about this again”, adding, “hunting... does no one remember the 2017 GE?”

The Hunting Act, which banned hunting foxes and other wild mammals with dogs in England and Wales, came into effect in 2004 despite widespread protests by the Countryside Alliance. It caused then-prime minister Tony Blair significant grief and cost him much political capital and he has since said he regrets implementing it.

“Traditional Tories were horrified when Labour passed a foxhunting ban, and amongst party members repeal is almost certainly a popular cause,” says The Guardian, “but amongst the public at large the prospect of the law being changed to legalise a sport that involves dogs tearing foxes to pieces is toxic”.

“Voters (and Tory MPs) may not much like fox hunting, but plenty of Tory members do — and they are the people who matter over the next few days,” says Blanchard.

With leadership ballots going out to Tory members this week and Hunt still behind his rival Boris Johnson, the Daily Mirror says the foreign secretary has made a “desperate bid to appeal to Conservative grassroots” who still overwhelmingly back repeal.

“Hunt’s surprise intervention will trigger dismay among Tory modernisers, who hoped he was the candidate to quell Boris Johnson's lurch to the right,” reports the paper.

As fury among Tory MPs mounted, Hunt and his team sought to row back slightly yesterday, with sources stressing he would only seek to bring a free vote to the Commons if there was a majority in Westminster for it to pass.

Yet in a sign of how playing short-term party politics can have long-term political consequences, Hunt’s comments were immediately seized upon by Jeremy Corbyn, who took to Twitter to urge people to sign a Labour petition saying the ban should be maintained.

The Guardian says “it is a good example of how foxhunting works for Labour as a campaigning issue, because petitions allow parties to harvest email addresses that can be used in the future”.

In another sign of how Tory support for foxhunting could be used to paint a picture of the party as out-of-touch and for the rich, Ian Lavery, Labour Party chairman, said: “This Tory leadership race is going from bad to worse. We’ve had Johnson’s tax cuts for the wealthy, a race to the bottom on no-deal Brexit, and now a pledge to bring back this barbaric practice that Labour had proudly banned.”

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