MPs could overturn the Government's controversial refusal to ban wild animals from performing in circuses, The Independent has learned.
Backbenchers from all parties plan to force a special Commons debate on the issue next month and are confident the House will vote overwhelmingly in favour of a ban.
Whitehall sources said yesterday that David Cameron is "the roadblock" to a ban proposed by ministers at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, is among the ministers calling for Mr Cameron to think again.
The deep disquiet among MPs about the Government's position is highlighted today by Mark Pritchard, secretary of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs and also of the all-party Parliamentary group on conservation and wildlife. Senior MPs plan to secure a Commons vote by raising the issue on the Business Committee, which allocates time for backbench debates. The same device was used to provide a debate on whether prisoners should be allowed to vote in general elections. The Commons voted by 234 to 22 to reject the call by the European Court of Human Rights for them to be enfranchised.
MPs predict a similar margin in favour of a ban on wild animals in circuses and hope that will persuade Mr Cameron to retreat.
Last night Downing Street sources denied that the Prime Minister had taken a close personal interest in the issue, insisting it had come across his desk in the normal way. "His reservations are based on legal advice. He believes we can achieve the same effect as a ban through a strict licensing system," one aide said.
There have been conflicting signals from the Government in recent weeks. Defra ministers looked set to announce a ban – in line with The Independent campaign. But instead opted for a licensing scheme run by local authorities to ensure lions, tigers and other wild animals in circuses are kept in good conditions.
At first, Defra ministers hid behind a court case being brought against the Austrian Government by the European Circus Association but later admitted the action had not yet begun. Last week, they cited advice from their own legal experts that a ban on wild animals in the UK could be seen as "disproportionate" under the European Union's services directive and the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. They also insisted that the European Circus Association would issue proceedings against the Austrian Government in the next few weeks.