I moaned here last week about the lack of attention the two Tory leadership contenders were paying to rural communities in their pitches to the party membership. Funnily enough, as Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson have travelled around the country to various party hustings, their tone has now changed. Finally, they are speaking up for people outside towns and cities.
Both of them have promised to speed up the delivery of full-fibre broadband to the countryside. They have also vowed to get the UK out of the Common Agricultural Policy, giving us control over our own agriculture policies. Hunt has sworn to place rural society at the heart of his government, and he has also promised ‘never (to) introduce any undue restrictions on gun ownership or the list of wild animals it is lawful to shoot’. Boris Johnson meanwhile has said he will make sure rural schools receive more funding, rural post offices will be supported and the number of police officers in rural areas will be increased.
But until yesterday, fox hunting was the one issue that neither of them had broached. Johnson has in the past joked about hunting: ‘If people want to get together and form the fox hounds of Islington, I’m all for it’, he said in 2013. But Hunt on hunting is today’s topic. Asked in a Daily Telegraph podcast whether he would repeal the 2004 Hunting Act, he said:
‘I would as soon as there was a majority in Parliament that would be likely to repeal the fox hunting ban, then I would support a vote in Parliament. I would vote to repeal the ban on fox hunting. It is part of the countryside. And we have to recognise that in terms of the balance of the countryside. You know, it’s part of our heritage.’
That was yesterday evening. This morning, on the BBC’s Today programme, he had changed his tune somewhat:
‘I was giving a straight answer to a straight question. But the law is not going to change on fox hunting. There isn’t a majority in the House of Commons, and I don’t see there ever being one. I was just restating the position in our manifesto from 2017 that there should be a free vote if it ever looked like that majority would change. But it would not be my priority as prime minister.’
The real question is why he has even broached the subject. As Katy Balls has pointed out, many believe that one of the things that did for the Tories in the last general election was Theresa May voicing her support for a repeal of the hunting ban. It seems silly of Hunt to have done almost exactly the same thing; and I’m not quite sure what he wanted to achieve by doing it.
Although they are an important part of rural life for many, field sports are not the number one priority for the vast majority of people living in rural communities. Talking about repealing the hunting act simply generates headlines accusing Hunt, or May, of being ‘barbaric’ or ‘cruel’. What it doesn’t do is actually address any of the issues at the heart of the hunting debate. The ban was never about animal welfare, but about class and politics. Even Tony Blair, who introduced the legislation which led to the Hunting Act being passed, has said that banning hunting is one of the things he did as PM that he most regrets.
Animal welfare hasn’t improved since the ban was brought in; foxes can still be snared, shot and gassed, and there’s no proof that hunting a fox is any less humane than any of those methods. But that’s not a discussion that is ever going to be had in a leadership debate. Fox hunting is, and always will be, a hugely divisive issue, and by bringing it up, Hunt has shot himself in the foot. As always happens, when it comes to any serious discussion of the Hunting Act in the press or politics, the facts don’t matter.