Tory MPs turn against hunting

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TWENTY-SIX Conservative MPs have pledged their support for Friday's Commons vote to ban fox-hunting and hare coursing. Support for hunting, once synonymous with shire Conservatism, is collapsing among the new generation of Tories.

The anti-hunt Tories include at least four ministers, and the present and former parliamentary private secretaries to John Major.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which has conducted a straw poll of MPs, believes that only 45 Conservatives feel strongly enough about hunting to vote against the Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill, a private member's measure to be introduced on Friday by John McFall, Labour MP for Dumbarton.

Three years ago, when Labour MP Kevin McNamara attempted to get hunting banned, some180 Conservatives, including 14 members of the Cabinet, turned out to vote the move down.

Piers Merchant, Tory MP for Beckenham, and PPS to Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, said: "Many more Conservative MPs are from middle or lower middle-class backgrounds. They have nothing in common with the squirearchy and don't hunt. The mail they have been receiving is having an influence."

MPs have been sent some 50,000 letters from constituents urging them to vote for the ban, according to the League Against Cruel Sports, which is backing the Bill. The league has so far received pledges of support from 26 Tories.

A recent NOP opinion poll found that 95 per cent of Britons think that all British wildlife should be protected from acts of deliberate cruelty. Ninety-two per cent said it was important that their MP supports the Bill. Among the Conservative MPs who intend to vote against hunting are Ann Widdecombe, Employment Minister, Steven Norris, Transport Minister, Gwilym Jones, Welsh Office Minister, Robert Hughes, Civil Service Minister, Graham Bright, the Prime Minister's former Parliamentary Private Secretary, and John Ward, his successor.

Other prominent Tory supporters of the Bill are Andrew Bowden, Harry Greenway, Terry Dicks, Jerry Hayes and Sir Teddy Taylor. The Prime Minister, who does not hunt and is on the executive of his local RSPCA branch, will not vote on the day.

The Conservative Anti-Hunt Council, a pressure group for Tory party members, says that there is support for the McFall Bill among all wings of the party, especially councillors.

"The advent of video evidence about hunts has swayed many people's opinions," said Diana Wilson, a former Tory councillor and the council's chairman. "Ten years ago to be anti-hunting was regarded as very left-wing, but now our views are mainstream.It's now become acceptable in the Conservative Party to say you're opposed to hunting. It is the Conservatives who will swing the vote in Parliament."

"I can detect a sea-change in attitudes among Conservative MPs," said Mr McFall. "They have in general been very supportive."

The new batch of 63 Tory MPs elected in 1992 does not feel as inclined to defend hunting as their predecessors.

The British Field Sports Society is urging supporters to abstain or stay away to prevent a vote and deprive opponents of an important moral victory.

Supporters of the Bill privately admit that it has very little chance of becoming law. Opponents are likely to frustrate it in committee stage by tabling hundreds of amendments.