Simon Hart

The hunting debate returns - and with it, the chance to strengthen the rural vote

The hunting debate returns - and with it, the chance to strengthen the rural vote
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So hunting returns to the front page of the Telegraph, just like old times. But today provides an intriguing variation on the norm. Instead of Tories calling on the Prime Minister to scrap the Act (my preferred route) we have Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru leading calls to make some relatively minor changes in the light of a new study into the Hunting Act's failings.

The detail is simple, if a little dull. At the moment farmers can only use two dogs to locate and flush a fox into the open so it can be shot to protect his livestock. The research shows that if you use two dogs instead of more you will find half as many foxes and chase those foxes for twice as long before you can shoot them. It was carried out in Scotland where there is no limit and farmers are suggesting we simply align England and Wales with Scottish law which has been grudgingly accepted both by farmers and those welfarists who designed and passed the law in the first place. For those with long memories, Parliament's main objection to hunting was what it called the 'length of the chase'. In huge upland woodlands the 'chase' is longer than before when only two hounds are involved and tracking down a wounded fox nigh on impossible. The latest proposal addresses that.

But what of the politics? Like the rest of the population, my colleagues are divided between a small number who care a great deal (for and against) and a larger slice who are pretty indifferent but who support the well established Party position, cemented by consecutive manifesto commitments to repeal the Hunting Act.

There is also a commitment in the Coalition agreement to address the issue of hunting in this Parliament which we cannot simply pretend does not exist.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister and Defra Secretary Owen Paterson have made numerous public and private promises that 'something will be done'. Thousands of rural voters supported and worked for the party, and individual MP's for this reason alone. Their patience has been put to the test on a range of topics and UKIP have been quick to stir all of this into an issue of trust.

So the Prime Minister has been presented with an opportunity to shore up a weary and sceptical rural vote on a totemic subject. The Lib Dems have the chance to pursue the 'least worst' option as they seek to protect their increasingly vulnerable rural marginals. Opponents of hunting are faced with rejecting something that actually improves animal welfare.

And the rest of the population? As ever the subject will remain largely insignificant to both their daily lives and their voting intention.

Simon Hart is Conservative MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.