Anyone with even a basic grasp of maths knows that the significant changes in controversial areas are off the political agenda during the term of this minority Government. Equally, anyone with a basic grasp of politics knows that any proposal that is not linked to Brexit and the economy will not get any priority. Asking the contenders for the Conservative leadership whether they would repeal the Hunting Act would therefore seem to be the most theoretical of questions, but of course that did not stop the question being asked or the subsequent furor when it was answered.
We could ask why this incredibly niche issue remains so newsworthy, 14 years after the Hunting Act was supposed to have ‘resolved’ it, but as we all know it long ago stopped being a discussion about foxes.
As I have written for the Telegraph, the first Bill to ban hunting was moved in 1949 and for the next 55 years the ludicrous discussion of how (not whether) foxes are killed sucked up over 700 hours of parliamentary debate before the Hunting Act was finally passed.
The idea that all this political capital was spent in pursuit of unproven marginal benefits to animal welfare is clearly absurd. What the hunting debate has always been about is politics pure and simple. The Labour MPs who so obsessively pursued the ban were blatant about their motivation. Dennis Skinner did it “for the miners”, whilst Peter Bradley famously wrote that “now that hunting has been banned, we ought at last to own up to it: the struggle over the Bill was not just about animal welfare and personal freedom, it was class war”.
It was this overt prejudice and our burning feeling of injustice, aligned with the commitment of hunting people to their hounds, their hunts and their communities that has driven a remarkable campaign since the ban came into force in February 2005. Hunts have proved more resilient than could ever have been predicted and we still ride and walk out from Cornwall to Cumbria.
What has perhaps changed is the assumption, repeated endlessly but never substantiated, that hunting has an impact on voters and specifically that a commitment to get rid of the ban turns voters away from the Conservative party. Strangely this was not mentioned in 2010 or 2015 when David Cameron won elections against the odds with a commitment for a vote on getting rid of the Hunting Act in his manifestos. But in 2017 when the Conservative party ran possibly the most inept campaign in living memory some are desperate to argue that it was hunting rather than a complete policy vacuum and gross incompetence that saw Theresa May lose her majority.
But in the week before the 2017 election when over two thousand people were asked identify three issues that would affect their vote at the general election just 8 (0.39%) mentioned hunting. When then asked to compare the impact of a range of issues on their vote people ranked hunting well below wind farms, green belt development, mobile phone connectivity, animal welfare and HS2. Only badger culling had marginally less impact on peoples’ votes. Tellingly of just 28 people who ranked hunting above all the other issues only one had voted for a Conservative candidate at the previous election. The findings were absolutely consistent with research we carried out before the 2010 and 2015 elections.
So what does that tell us about hunting and voting intention? Well it really takes us back to where we started. This isn’t about foxes it is about politics. People do not change their vote because they dislike hunting, they dislike hunting because of how they vote. Both candidates in the leadership race can be confident that support for changing the law on hunting, if and when that might ever be practical, will not cost them a single vote.
Follow me at @CA_TimB