The dramatic vote to outlaw the use of wild creatures in circuses will prove a turning-point in the drive to combat animal cruelty, campaigners predicted last night.
They think the changing attitude of young politicians towards the treatment of animals could scupper moves to repeal the ban on fox-hunting and to press ahead with a widespread badger cull.
It had been widely assumed that the influx of large numbers of Conservative MPs at the last election would tip the balance against animal welfare issues. But a succession of recently elected Tories intervened during Thursday's impassioned debate to support an outright ban and to condemn the conditions endured by circus animals.
The main backbencher to speak out against the move, the Tory Andrew Rosindell, was jeered by MPs of all parties, including his own, as he declared animals in circuses suffered "almost no cruelty" and urged ministers against "pandering to the emotions of animal rights activists".
So overwhelming was the mood in the Commons that the Government was forced to abandon efforts to force MPs to support its alternative proposal to license circuses. Backbenchers are also determined to return to the subject if ministers prevaricate on implementing a ban.
The attitude of the Commons on circus animals has implications for the Government which must soon decide whether to implement plans to combat rising levels of TB in cattle by culling badgers. Ministers have been agonising since September over whether to authorise a cull, and admit there is a "question-mark" over whether it will happen.
Part of the reason for the dithering by the Government appears to be the risk of widespread protests – backed by MPs – over the mass slaughter of animals. Polls suggest that only one in six of the public supports a cull. The Labour MP Paul Flynn, a long-term supporter of animal rights, said the circus vote was a "deeply significant" moment despite being a relatively narrow issue.
"The Tory MPs reflected the mood of the country and gave greater priority to animal welfare. Compassion towards animals is increasing and indifference is disappearing," he said.
Claire Robinson, a spokeswoman for the RSPCA, said: "There has been a dramatic change of MPs across the board. There is a whole new intake with whole new attitudes." She said the vote demonstrated that MPs were becoming more alert to constituents' views and felt compelled to act on them.
"The vote gave backbench MPs the confidence to speak up and to ask the government to think again on animal welfare. It's not safe to assume that MPs will willingly agree with the Government on such issues."
The changing complexion of the Commons has major implications for the chances of repealing the Act that banned hunting with dogs. Before the election just three or four Tory MPs opposed fox-hunting, but the number has now jumped to more than 20.
Tracey Crouch, the Tory MP for Chatham, who was elected last year, said the increase in Conservatives opposed to fox-hunting reflected the rising numbers representing urban areas. She added: "Animal welfare is incredibly important to the general public. More people give money to animal welfare organisations or join them than join political parties or even vote. Clearly we are a nation of animal lovers and I think politicians are reflecting that."
With Liberal Democrat MPs divided on hunting, mostof the Commons still appears to oppose repealing the Act. The coalition agreement promises to give MPs a free vote on whether to scrap the Act during the course of the Parliament. Although the Conservative manifesto denounced the hunting ban as "unworkable", there are no signs of moves to arrange the vote and speculation is growing that it could be cancelled altogether.