When hunt supporters visit the office of a Tory cabinet minister these days, they like to turn up armed and dangerous. And so it was when a delegation from the Countryside Alliance arrived for a private meeting with the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson a few weeks ago, wielding an alarming new poll of their membership. Setting the dossier down in front of Mr Paterson (one of their few allies in government), they spelt out the bottom line: 13 per cent of Countryside Alliance members now intend to vote Ukip in the next general election.
Let’s be clear: given that the CA is basically the voice of the shires, that is only a shade less shocking than saying that 13 per cent of Mr Cameron’s own family intend to vote Ukip, although that is always possible, I suppose.
According to the poll, 66 per cent of Countryside Alliance members would vote Conservative if there were an election tomorrow, an almost 20 per cent drop in just a couple of years, while 13 per cent would vote Ukip and 2 per cent Labour. It’s particularly significant because this same poll a few years ago showed negligible support for Ukip and other parties.
Mr Paterson, who understands the countryside, was rightly worried. He saw at once that this wasn’t just about the vote, but about the whole network of support for the Tories outside London. It’s difficult to over-emphasise, for instance, how much the Conservatives rely on the hunt. Some 12,000 hunt supporters campaigned and leafleted for the Tories at the last election. They were the backbone of the party’s effort, pouring into marginal seats in an operation of military precision co-ordinated by a campaign group called Vote OK.
These farmers and squires had a spring in their step as they pounded pavements back then; they were looking forward to Cameron fulfilling his pledge to overturn the ban on hunting, showing that Labour’s class war against them was over.
But of course, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Three years into a Tory-led administration and the once clear promise to hold a free vote on repealing the Hunting Act has come to nothing, the aggressive prosecutions of hunts by the RSPCA continue, and the closest the hunting community can get to vindication is a hint that the government might relax the ban slightly to allow Welsh hill farmers to protect their flocks by using more than two dogs to flush out foxes.
But the hunting issue is only the tip of this iceberg of resentment. To understand why rural Tories are so angry, you need to consider the rest of the CA’s poll findings. Asked what motivates them, they reel out a long list including HS2, fuel prices and planning laws that give developers greater power to override local communities.
The anguish over planning really isn’t just nimbyism. People who actually live in the country care about the communities there. They feel it is profoundly wrong to build thousands of houses in areas that don’t have the necessary schools, hospitals and transport links. And yet when they object — to housing on green belt or the high speed rail link ruining lives — they are dismissed as small-minded and self-interested. Nick Boles, the planning minister (and pal of Dave), suggests in response that green fields are overrated, which I suppose they are if you live in Notting Hill.
Hunting, meanwhile, has become totemic. As it did once for the Labour party, the issue has assumed for rural Tories the symbolism of everything they feel is wrong about the prevailing order. They are appalled, for instance, that the RSPCA seems to have been given unlimited access to the police national computer. They feel let down by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, who would not even consider changing the law so that film and video evidence gathered by saboteurs is subject to the same rules as that gathered by the police. They are shocked that the party that ought to be protecting them is effectively delivering them on a platter to left-wing animal rights nutters who want their guts for garters. The war against hunting folk that Labour started has escalated, and a Tory-led government has sat back and watched it happen. The sense of betrayal in these communities is visceral.
Whatever you think of hunting and fox welfare, the hunt supporters do have a point. Cameron was happy to stand up for them when they were wearing their shoe leather thin for him in the run-up to the last election, but now he’s lost interest — or, worse than that, he seems actually disgusted by them. Cameroonians talk quite openly of the fact that they’d actually rather be in coalition with the Lib Dems than win an outright majority at the next election, so as to be protected from what they call ‘swivel--eyed loons on the wrong side of history’. And yet they still expect the grass roots to support them in 2015?
I wouldn’t count on it. The CA polling shows that 64 per cent of people living in the countryside do not believe coalition policies are helping them, and nearly three quarters (73 per cent) think politicians are more interested in the views and values of city dwellers. They feel Cameron — always a keen follower of fashion — has abandoned them for fear of offending trendy urbanites who have no understanding of the realities of country life.
Just look at South Thanet, where A-lister Laura Sandys beat Labour with hunting help, only to declare her opposition to repealing the ban once elected. Traditional Tories pretty much burst blood vessels when they talk about Ms Sandys in her constituency now. Nigel Farage is tipped to contest the seat for Ukip at the next election — and why not?
The people I meet when I am out trail hunting, as the law demands, are at the very limits of their endurance. Take Julian Price, a 31-year-old farmer from Oxfordshire who canvassed for the Conservatives at the last two elections. Mr Price, who runs a 400-acre farm near Bicester which has been in his family for three generations, spent eight days canvassing in 2010 and estimates that he must have put thousands of leaflets through doors in target seats which then returned Tory MPs — Milton Keynes, North and South. The former saw a notional 6.2 per cent swing to the Tories, while the latter saw an even more thumping 9.2 per cent swing, both well above the average.
Three years later, Mr Price finds himself farming three fields away from the proposed site of HS2, which will cut his neighbour’s farm in half. And he is still banned from his favourite hobby, hunting with hounds. ‘I genuinely believe that Cameron has used us to get in and is now wiping his hands of us,’ he says, breathless with indignation. ‘All my family have always been Conservatives. But what they promised they would do for me they have gone back on. I genuinely feel that Ukip are more for us country people and farmers now.’
If Mr Cameron still doubts that the desertion of people like Mr Price is something to regret, he should consider the figures. According to independent assessments, rural campaigners were instrumental in winning 36 target seats in 2010. Overall, Vote OK leafleters were present in 58 constituencies which saw a significant swing to the Tories. A survey conducted by Professor David Denver of Lancaster university for the Electoral Commission following the 2005 election concluded: ‘There is no doubt that turnout was indeed higher in Vote OK targets than anywhere else. In targeted seats the greater the effort of Vote OK, the better the Conservative performance.’
‘What amazes me about David Cameron,’ says Mr Price, ‘is that I genuinely thought that with his background he would be better at representing the rural community. But he’s turned against us.’
Insiders say it is Mr Cameron’s firm belief that rural Tories are making empty threats. He’s quite convinced that even if they vote Ukip in the European elections, just to blow off steam, they’ll come through in 2015. He’s betting that they’ll be too horrified by the thought of a Labour government to actually put their cross in the Ukip box. But what Cameron doesn’t understand is that increasingly, Tories in the shires see no difference between Cameron and Miliband.
Perhaps Cameron is also relying on the fact that Vote OK is organised in part by his stepfather-in-law Viscount Astor, who is on the advisory board. Perhaps he feels that these people are essentially loyalists who, however turbulent they may seem now, will come to heel once an election is called. But most dogs, pushed to the limit, will one day bite. Those in the know say that he imagines that if he makes enough noise about repatriating powers from Europe, or leaving the ECHR, the countryside will rally round.
But if you ask me, this rather high-handed approach represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how deep the sense of abandonment goes. Rural Tories have finally woken up to the fact that Cameron despises them. He prefers the idea of Nick Clegg to his own grass roots.
And then there is that broken promise. Yes, it is only hunting, but as Clegg himself discovered, when you break a promise, people struggle to believe that you are going to keep another one. As one former Tory volunteer told me: ‘We may as well vote Ukip. We’ve nothing to lose.’