The Government is facing an embarrassing defeat over its refusal to ban wild animals from circuses in a crunch vote in the Commons next week.
If the Coalition loses the ballot after a three-hour debate on Thursday, it will be constitutionally obliged to ban tigers, lions and elephants from the big top. The securing of the backbench debate by the Tory MP Mark Pritchard has led to intense lobbying in Parliament by animal welfare groups, who are appealing to the public to contact their MP to urge them to attend.
David Bowles, a director of the RSPCA, one of the organisations demanding a ban, said: "We are throwing everything at it. This is the best chance to make the Government see sense."
As reported by The Independent, the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, backtracked on a ban last month when David Cameron vetoed the plan. Instead, she has proposed introducing a licensing system, which campaigners say is unnecessary, bureaucratic and expensive. Opinion polls consistently show that more than 70 per cent of voters favour a ban. Two-thirds of MPs are said to favour outlawing the use of animals in circuses and 198 MPs have signed a Commons motion calling for the practice to end. But campaigners are concerned about how many MPs will stay behind to debate the issue on a Thursday afternoon, a time when they normally return to their constituencies.
The Government is expected to muster the support of around 90 ministers and aides on the "payroll vote". The Conservatives may also whip backbenchers, although several, including Mr Pritchard and Zac Goldsmith, are likely to rebel. The Liberal Democrats are in a tricky position, because several of their prominent MPs, including Norman Baker, the Transport Minister, and Adrian Sanders and Bob Russell, passionately support a ban.
The Coalition has been in a muddle over wild animals in circuses for months. In early April "senior sources" told the Sunday Express there would be a ban within weeks following outrage over the beating of Anne the elephant, but the next month Mrs Spelman changed her mind after Downing Street intervened. Mr Pritchard, secretary of the 1922 Committee, called on Mrs Spelman to rethink the policy. He said: "There is overwhelming support both in and outside of Parliament for a complete ban. This is a moment of truth that will test the Coalition's credentials on animal welfare."
Gavin Shuker, the shadow Environment Minister, urged Mrs Spelman to introduce a ban "before she is forced to U-turn by a vote in the Commons."
'The Independent' is hoping that 30,000 people will sign its online petition before the debate begins. More than 26,000 have signed so far. To sign, visit independent.co.uk/circusanimals