At what point did the Conservatives' 2017 campaign start to go off the rails? A lot of Conservative MPs point to the manifesto launch and the creation of the so-called dementia tax. However, many view comments Theresa May made during a stump speech on fox hunting as just as damaging. The then prime minister said she had 'always supported fox hunting' and vowed to give parliament a free vote on the issue. This was quickly weaponised by Labour and the story spread online. May’s proposal to reintroduce fox hunting with a free vote was the single most viral topic of the election.
Since then, the Tories have had an unwritten rule: don't talk about fox-hunting. During the leadership election, Jeremy Hunt suggested he would back a free vote – only to then perform a hasty U-turn saying: 'This is not something I will seek to change as prime minister'. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson point blank refused to talk about it when questioned.
However, this is not an option available to the Tories anymore in terms of the general election campaign. The issue is viewed as so toxic that the Tories believe they have to address it. Adding to this is the fact that Labour have brought the issue to the news agenda with a pledge to launch a crackdown on fox hunting by boosting the number of dedicated officers working on wildlife crimes. A £4.5m fund would be used to almost double the number of officers prosecuting such crimes.
This has already led to government ministers being asked their party's policy on the issue. In a Sky News interview this morning, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland did not rule out a free vote on fox hunting in the Tory manifesto but said he would be 'surprised' to see the party returning to debating this issue.
There are Tory voters in rural constituencies who want the party to offer a free vote – and their support can be very important when it comes to getting people out to help campaign. With door-knocking activists thin on the ground nowadays, hunt lobbying groups are valued within the party for getting their supporters to help out canvassing.
But given that those close to figures drafting the Conservative manifesto proposals suggest it will be one of the most boring manifestos in history – with little risk involved – it would be surprising for fox hunting to come up in such a way. Conservative figures suggest there will be no pledge for a free vote this time around – instead it could actively state that there will be no free vote. The Tories are determined not to repeat the same mistakes as 2017 and a pledge on fox hunting is ranked as one of the worst.