The Liberal Democrats have blocked a plan backed by David Cameron to relax the ban on hunting introduced in 2004.
The Prime Minister expressed his regret that the two Coalition parties were unlikely to agree about a proposal to allow up to 40 dogs to flush out a fox, instead of the two dogs allowed under the Hunting Act.
It has been put forward by hill farmers to help them control foxes and won the support of pro-hunting MPs. But Liberal Democrat sources said they had blocked a move that would have restored hunting with packs of dogs “by the back door”.
Mr Cameron said during Prime Minister’s Questions: “Proposals were made on a cross-party basis about an amendment to the Hunting Act that would help in particular upland farmers deal with the problem of fox predation of their lands. That letter has been received and is being considered but I regret to say I don't think there'll be government agreement to go forward."
There is also no sign of the free Commons vote on whether to retain the hunting ban, which was promised in the Coalition Agreement struck in 2010. Conservative sources admit that pro-hunting MPs are not pressing for a vote because they fear calls for a relaxation would be defeated.
Downing Street insisted that the pledge of a free vote still stood and there was no change in the policy set out in the agreement. But it could not give a timetable for the vote.
Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “I am delighted that we have flushed out this back door attack on the Hunting Act. What they planned would have driven a coach and horses through the Act. I am delighted we have thwarted this plot from a tiny but powerful hunting lobby. We have won this battle but not the war. We call on the Prime Minister to either admit the Hunting Act is here to stay, or hold the promised vote on repeal of the Act.”