Jeremy Hunt has insisted that changing the law on fox hunting would not be his “priority” as prime minister, after he came under fire for saying he would move to see the blood sport legalised.
The Conservative leadership hopeful told the Daily Telegraph that he would support a vote in Parliament when there was a majority in the Commons likely to back the move.
But he sought to play down his comments when he appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, saying: “The law is not going to change on fox hunting.
“There isn’t a majority in the House of Commons and I don’t see there ever being one – I was just restating the position in our manifesto from 2017 that there should be a free vote if it ever looked like that majority would change.
“But it wouldn’t be my priority as prime minister: we’re going to have Brexit, we’ve the social care system … We’ve got huge economic priorities that are going to have to be addressed – so that wouldn’t be where I’d focus my energies.”
His push to change the law was condemned by the Labour Party, which said fox hunting was a “barbaric practice”.
The Foreign Secretary, who said he had never hunted, was asked three times whether he thought the practice was cruel, but sidestepped the question.
“My view is a matter of public record … I’m here to talk about the things I want to change as prime minister – that is not something that’s going to change,” he told Today.
The move comes as ballot papers for the Conservative leadership contest between Mr Hunt and Boris Johnson begin to be sent to the party membership.
Fox hunting was banned in England and Wales following the introduction of the Hunting Act 2004 – which came into force a year later.
The legislation permits drag hunting where hounds are trained to follow an artificial scent.
It is not the first time a potential repeal of the legislation has been suggested.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement included a pledge to “bring forward a motion on a free vote enabling the House of Commons to express its view on the repeal of the Hunting Act” which ultimately did not take place.
Theresa May also scrapped plans for a vote in 2018, saying: “I think there was a clear message about that and that’s why I say there won’t be a vote on fox hunting during this parliament.”
The League Against Cruel Sports said the pledge showed Mr Hunt was “out of touch with public opinion”.
It added: “The last time a politician said we should bring back hunting – Theresa May in the 2017 General Election – she was punished in the polling booths. Nothing has changed.”
Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery said: “This Tory leadership race is going from bad to worse.
“We’ve had Johnson’s tax cuts for the wealthy, a race to the bottom on no-deal Brexit, and now a pledge to bring back this barbaric practice that Labour had proudly banned.”