David Cameron insisted yesterday that he was "minded" to outlaw circuses from keeping wild animals after MPs of all parties joined forces to inflict an embarrassing defeat on the Government by demanding an immediate ban.
The Prime Minister was also forced to defend the methods of his Downing Street team after a senior Conservative MP claimed he had been bullied and threatened over his support for the ban.
Mr Cameron said it was "not right" to still have lions, tigers and elephants performing in the big top. "We are minded to have a ban, but need to clear some obstacles," he told a press conference at an EU summit in Brussels.
He attempted to laugh off the accusation by the Tory MP Mark Pritchard that Downing Street offered him a job in return for dropping his Commons motion on circus animals but warned him the Prime Minister would look "very dimly" on him if he refused to fall into line.
Mr Cameron did not deny his officials had attempted to change his backbencher's mind, but joked that his "gentle, reasonable" staff were more like Mother Teresa than "slathering Rottweilers". But his official spokes- man said: "We don't recognise [his] description of the conversation."
Despite Mr Cameron's conciliatory language on implementing a ban – and the promise by Agriculture minister James Paice to "respect the will of the House" – there were signs last night the Government was prevaricating.
The Department for the Environment is understood to be still arguing there are legal problems in implementing an outright ban and to be standing by its alternative proposal for a tough licensing regime for circuses.