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Hunting and pay test Tory discipline

Cameron embarrassed by off-message comments from shadow ministers

Conservative discipline was under strain last night as party chiefs moun- ted a damage limitation exercise over bungled announcements on fox-hunting and public sector pay.

The Government claimed David Cameron's "mask had slipped" after the party distanced itself from a shadow minister's promise to repeal the Hunting Act if it wins power. The Tories were forced to issue a cast-iron guarantee that three-year pay deals for nurses, teachers and police would not be torn up by a Cameron administration.

The party provoked fury among animal rights groups when Edward Garnier, a shadow Justice minister, denounced the Act banning hunting as "unfair and unworkable". He agreed that the issue was not top of the agenda but told the BBC: "I think the mood in the country has changed and is now ready to repeal it."

The League Against Cruel Sports said 75 per cent of the public and 59 per cent of Tory voters backed the hunting ban: "The vast majority do not want to turn the clocks back to a time when cruelty and killing for pleasure under the guise of hunting with dogs was legal."

Tory chiefs insisted party policy had not changed. A spokeswoman said: "A Conservative government will give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote."

Senior Conservatives also moved to placate public sector unions after George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, suggested in a Radio 4 interview that three-year pay agreements could be under threat. The Tories stressed that Mr Osborne never intended that pay agreements due to end in 2011 would be torn up. A party source said: "He was referring to future deals."

As revealed in The Independent yesterday, the Conservatives faced controversy on a third front when Daniel Hannan, the Euro MP who became a hit on YouTube after berating Gordon Brown in the European Parliament, suggested the NHS had been a "mistake". The party described him as a backbencher who did not speak for the leadership. The fiercely Eurosceptic Mr Hannan will be a star turn at the Conservative spring conference in two weeks.

Labour, seeking a post-G20 electoral bounce, said the controversies showed the Tory party had not changed. Liam Byrne, the Cabinet Office minister, said: "The mask has slipped. The shadow Chancellor wants to cut pay for nurses, teachers and the police, their latest poster boy wants to privatise the NHS and one of their top priorities in a recession would be to abolish the hunting ban. Their values and policies are still unfair and incoherent."

John Spellar, a Labour whip, said: "Cameron had done a good spray job on the Tory party, but it's still the same old nasty party that voters rejected."

Mixed messages? The Tories' clunky footwork

Inheritance tax Kenneth Clarke, the shadow Business Secretary, downgraded the Tory proposal to abolish death duties on estates worth less than £1m to an "aspiration". But David Cameron insisted it was a firm commitment for the first five years of a Tory government.

Fox hunting Edward Garnier, a shadow Justice minister, firmly backed a repeal of the 2004 Hunting Act. The party stressed the issue was not a priority – and MPs would be given a free vote.

Pay George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, said a Tory government could scrap three-year pay agreements for public sector workers. Aides had to clarify that he only meant future deals.

NHS Daniel Hannan, a Euro MP, claimed the NHS had been a "mistake for 60 years". Tory sources stressed Mr Cameron did not agree.