As the warm glow of our surprise election win wears off, the historically-minded Conservative can’t help but dwell on the unhappy fate of the last Tory government to win a surprise majority.
John Major’s slender lead left him trying to tackle the challenges of the 1990s from a position of chronic weakness, and five years of ignominious infighting destroyed the Party’s hard-won reputation as a competent, capable custodian of the nation.
Worse, that position was in many ways stronger than now: in 1992 the Conservatives secured the largest popular vote in British history; more than three quarters of a million Scottish voters (and 11 Scottish seats); and a larger majority than David Cameron enjoys today.
Perhaps due to misplaced anticipation of a second round of coalition negotiations, the Prime Minister is now in office with a belligerent and ambitious manifesto but a wafer-thin Parliamentary safety margin.
The result is that even a very small Tory rebellion can wipe out the Government’s hold on the Commons.
One conquence of this is that the Government is trying to find innovative parliamentary tactics to avoid the need for time-consuming and risk-fraught primary legislation. Yet if this week is any indication, that strategy needs some polishing.
First, Chris Grayling’s ambitious timetable for the introduction of English Votes for English Laws was put on hold, and how Cameron’s attempt to use a statutory instrument to relax the hunting ban looks like it might be the next.
What the Government proposes is to relax the current restrictions on the number of dogs that can be used to flush out foxes for shooting. At present this is capped at two, but on large landholdings (Welsh hill farmers are the primary intended beneficiaries of this amendment) a pair of hounds is insufficient to the task.
Such legislation has already been brought implemented in Scotland, whose sprawling highland holdings faced similar problems.
Today’s Daily Mail quotes Tracey Crouch, the sports minister, going public on Twitter with her intention to vote against the measure, and the paper names two other ministers (Caroline Dinenage and Dominic Raab) also known to oppose the changes, which they believe are a back door path back to blood sports.
Against that, there is great grassroots pressure from the Party’s rural heartlands to reverse what many perceive as an attack on rural life by pious metropolitans who prefer their animals killed in slaughterhouses, out of sight and out of mind.
Parliamentary sources suggest that the vote may well be lost, as whatever the actual content and intent of the changes (designed primarily to help hill farmers who need to patrol huge tracts of land), Labour is likely to treat the issue as a whipped vote.
The deciding role will probably be played by the SNP. On paper they’ve little reason to object, as this is simply bringing the law into line with provisions already in place north of the border. But if they’re minded to make mischief they will undoubtedly find a pretext.
Hunting is such a thorny problem because it’s such an emotionally charged clash of cultures. Whilst there is a technocratic debate to be had about whether or not hunting ‘works’ as an effective and necessary form of pest control, proving that one way or the other wouldn’t lead to the other side coming round.
Many opponents of hunting are just straight-up opposed to killing animals (at least, animals they don’t eat), and despise the idea of people enjoying it. At least some are motivated by a gut dislike of the sort of people involved in hunting, be they red-coated toffs or those members of the rural poor whose opinions aren’t those their would-be champions in Islington feel are proper.
Meanwhile many advocates of hunting, such as Melissa Kite of the Spectator, openly admit to enjoying it, and argue that it forms a vital part of the rural economy and society regardless of the unfortunate consequences of a few foxes.
Those are not viewpoints that can be easily reconciled with statistics.
Yet for all the sound and the fury, the stakes may not be as high as all that: writing in the Observer a year after the ban was introduced, Nick Cohen reported how a bill riddled with technical deficiencies had done more to suck the wind out of the hunt saboteur movement than to curb the practices of hunts.
The Prime Minister feels that he owes the hunting lobby a move on this, especially after they often provided important platoons of ground troops during the general election.
Yet the fact that said lobby is still so energised, organised, and numerous, a full decade after the passage of a law meant to stamp them out, suggests that the stakes might really be just as low as the Government insists.