David Cameron drops plans to relax fox hunting ban after SNP vowed to inflict first government defeat

Prime Minister accuses SNP of behaving in 'entirely opportunistic' way after it forced government to delay vote on fox hunting until autumn

David Cameron has dropped plans to relax the fox hunting ban after the 56 Scottish nationalist MPs said they would vote against the move and inflict an embarrassing first defeat on the government.

The decision by SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to break with the party’s tradition of abstaining on votes in Westminster that do not affect Scotland prompted an angry reaction from the Prime Minister, who accused the Scottish nationalists of behaving in an “entirely opportunistic” manner.

MPs were due to be given a free vote on proposals to lift the limit of two hounds allowed on a hunt for pest control and research purposes on Wednesday but decided to postpone the move until the autumn as it became clear it would lose the vote. 

The SNP made the decision to take part in the vote after Ms Sturgeon travelled down to Westminster last night to hold a two-hour meeting with her party’s 56 MPs.

The SNP said it made the decision to vote in the issue because of fears that changes to the fox hunting ban south of the border, such as allowing it for research purposes as well as pest control, would affect hunting in Scotland, where the current legislation is about to be reviewed.

Ms Sturgeon insisted it was a moral decision too, saying she and her colleagues had received as much correspondence over the issue as any other since the election.

But it was also a move to exact revenge on the Conservative government that is trying to push through English Votes for English Laws (Evel) that it believes will turn Scottish parliamentarians into "second-class citizens in Westminster".

Speaking on the Today programme, Ms Sturgeon accused Mr Cameron of showing "very little respect to the mandate that Scottish MPs' have," citing the government's attitude to changes to the Scotland Bill and the rhetoric around Evel.

The SNP's decision meant the government was heading towards its first defeat of the new Parliament, with its slender majority of 12 set to be wiped out as up to 30 Tory MPs were expected to join the vast majority of Labour's 232 MPs to defy the Prime Minister and vote against the relaxation of the ban.

The SNP forced the Prime Minister to act before facing the humiliation of defeat over the matter in the House of Commons tomorrow.

Mr Cameron is expected to return to the issue after it passes its plans for English Votes for English Laws, which would shut out Scottish MPs from voting at certain stages of legislation on laws that do not affect their Scottish constituents.

The proposals were already watered down measures from the Conservative party’s election manifesto pledge to repeal the Hunting Act entirely.

Mr Cameron had hoped that by deciding on a compromised position of making changes to the existing legislation he could have avoided months of debates in Parliament and damaging media coverage at the same time as pleasing many in his own party and the powerful pro-hunting lobby.

Speaking after deciding to ditch the proposals set for debate tomorrow, Mr Cameron said: "I find their position entirely opportunistic and very hard to explain in any other way".

But Maria Eagle, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, welcomed the decision by the SNP to help force the government to back down, describing the proposals on the table as “shabby”.  "David Cameron is now running scared because he knew he was going to lose the vote on fox hunting,” she said.

"The Government’s proposed changes to the Hunting Act have become a shambles. This has nothing to do with ‘pest control’ - it is a shabby attempt to repeal a successful piece of animal welfare legislation by the back-door.”

It came as a new poll revealed a vast majority of the public remained opposed to changes to the current fox hunting ban. A ComRes survey of 1,005 found that 74 per cent of people believed fox hunting should remain illegal, while just 20 per cent supported changes to existing legislation in England and Wales.

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