Jeremy Hunt insisted that lifting the ban on fox hunting would not be his priority as prime minister as he battled to shift the focus away from his comments on the blood sport.
The Conservative leadership hopeful said he would support a vote in Parliament when there was a majority in the Commons likely to back the move.
But following a backlash over the remarks, Mr Hunt insisted his focus was on issues including defence spending, education and boosting the economy rather than repealing the Hunting Act.
Mr Hunt’s initial comments on the issue came in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, but he attempted to downplay them in a subsequent appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“The law is not going to change on fox hunting,” he told the broadcaster.
“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.”
Later, on a visit to Guildford – next door to his South West Surrey constituency – Mr Hunt was asked whether spending the day being questioned about his views on fox hunting had been part of his plan for the campaign.
He told PA: “I have been talking about lots of other things as well, including my plans to turbocharge our economy and to walk tall in the world with our defence spending.
“Actually most of the day I have been in schools talking about my plans to abolish illiteracy.
“Those are the things I want to change, but I am also someone who gives a straight answer to a straight question, and how I have voted in the past is a matter of public record and I will always be straight with people.
“But what I want to change is to unlock the amazing potential of our great country.”
Mr Hunt had told the Telegraph that hunting was ” not particularly my thing” but “it’s part of the countryside” and he would vote to repeal the ban.
Tory leadership candidate @Jeremy_Hunt promises a parliamentary vote on whether to lift the fox hunting ban but doesn't state his own view on the matter #r4todayhttps://t.co/pB4W4Uyxptpic.twitter.com/9EnaD4Gu6w
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) July 4, 2019
His comments were 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 on Today whether he thought the practice was cruel, but sidestepped the question.
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.
Mr Hunt was not an MP at the time the law was passed.
The League Against Cruel Sports said Mr Hunt’s comments showed he 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” with “a pledge to bring back this barbaric practice that Labour had proudly banned”.
In Guildford, Mr Hunt performed many of the classic campaign activities – short of kissing a baby.
In The Keep pub he pulled a pint of Shere Drop and as he supped the ale he said: “Cheers Boris if you’re watching, may the best man win.”
He also held a Cavapoo dog called Frankie, joking that the picture was “not at all cheesy”.