During last June’s election campaign, at an election rally in Leeds, Theresa May was asked about fox hunting. Her answer reflected both Conservative policy and her own views: “As it happens, personally, I’ve always been in favour of fox hunting and we maintain our commitment – we had a commitment previously – as a Conservative Party to allow a free vote, and that would allow Parliament to take a decision on this,” she said. In those words lie the origin of the answer to a question we asked last week: why is the environment back as a Tory campaigning priority, for the first time since the early Cameron years?
Some Conservative candidates report that the Prime Minister’s off-the-cuff response inflicted serious harm on her reputation among two important demographics – natural Labour voters attracted to the Party by Brexit, and younger voters who weren’t previously committed. “The biggest topic of conversation by far amongst these Labour-background urban voters was fox hunting often preceded with the comment: ‘We never thought she would be in favour of it,’ wrote Michelle Lowe, who fought Coventry South, on this site. “Potential urban switchers began to think that the Prime Minister was the same as any other Tory, and began doubting her. Fox hunting continued as an issue for the rest of the campaign across the Midlands, where we have a number of universities and lots of student voters, and it no doubt cost us votes, especially amongst those young people and others.”
Other candidates dispute this claim. For example, Tom Hunt, who contested Doncaster Central and works for the Countryside Alliance, asked on ConservativeHome why the polls didn’t move immediately if it is true. None the less, it is certainly the case that fox hunting is unpopular among a very large section of voters. Downing Street, which does its own in-house assessment of polling these days, has concluded that Lowe’s take was right. Hence the inclusion of the environment in a list of seven policy principles that Gavin Barwell, Number Ten’s Chief of Staff, has been briefing Tory MPs about. And for the environment, read animals.
“The primary focus isn’t on climate change,” one senior Conservative told ConHome. “It isn’t even soil fertility or plastic pollution. It’s animals, animals, animals.” In terms of the causes that rattle MPs’ inboxes, he is undoubtedly right. MPs reported before the 2015 election that three of the top 14 entries that voters pressed them concerned animal welfare: the badger cull, which was fifth, animal research and experimentation, which was eighth, and fox hunting itself, which came in fourteenth. “The Great British public are troubled more by the welfare of badgers than care for the elderly or the state of our children’s schools,” said a summary of the findings. Perhaps the explanation lies in a certain northern European, or perhaps British, or maybe specifically English sensibility, in which the countryside, and the wildlife that helps to define it, somehow captures the essence of the nation.
From George Stubbs’ pictures of horses through Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending to Kenneth Grahame‘s The Wind in the Willows, the presence of animals, often anthropomorphised, haunts our culture. That Britain is now a largely urban-and-suburban country has done little to change this – though much to distance most voters from the habitats in which many animals are to be found, itself a cause of tension between farmers, who actually manage the land, and environmentalists, some of which are also country-dwellers but many of whom are not.
So no wonder Conservative MPs were asked to tweet about the BBC’s Blue Planet Two, with a series of pre-prepared graphics, and Boris Johnson casually dropped into a weekend interview about Russia and Brexit a reference to a conference he is hosting on the illegal wildlife trade. But the Minister who has charge of the Conservative zoological carnival is Michael Gove. The Environment Secretary has been hyperactive – ordering CCTV into slaughterhouses, proposing tougher sentences for animal cruelty, backing a ban on bee-harming pesticides (smartly reversing the Government’s previous policy) and preparing to ban ivory regardless of age (ditto). And with Gove, as ever, there is a Brexit angle. He promises to “make Brexit work not just for citizens, but for the animals we love and cherish too”, and wants the Common Fisheries Policy repatriated early.
Tory sources claim that leaving the EU will enable the UK to meet higher standards of animal husbandry. They cite regulations that cover the export of live animals. “It will be possible to ban foie gras, not that we have plans to,” one told ConservativeHome. Any such move would certainly provide a characteristically counter-intuitive Goveian headline. But for the time being, he has his work cut out. Animal welfare ones are apparently torn between a suspicion of Brexit – and an attachment to the familiar EU framework of animal protection – and hope for more stringent animal welfare laws after we leave the EU.
This tension boiled over in the Commons recently, when Tory MPs opposed an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill which sought to carry over the EU definition of animal sentience. They argued that existing UK laws render such a move unnecessary. But there was a palaver on Twitter. It was claimed that Conservatives believe animals aren’t sentient. The lobby groups came leaping in. Compassion In World Farming, Avaaz and 38 Degrees are pressing for further amendments to the Bill. It took a lively CCHQ counter-offensive on Twitter (a sign that it is getting part of its act together) and some vigorous media appearences by the Environment Secretary to cool the heat. His friends report that after Education and Justice, where the lobby groups are largely confined to teachers, prison reformers and judges, Gove has been astonished by the sheer variety of campaigners he meets in his latest post.
David Cameron had his “hardworking people”; Theresa May has her “just about managings” – or did before last summer, at least. These voters’ concerns are gritty: living standards, the NHS, housing, immigration, energy bills. We asked last week whether it makes sense for Downing Street to give the environment priority. Its answer seems to be that circumstances have changed: that the 2017 election has left the Conservatives with new challenges among younger voters, that the environment as an issue is “up for grabs”, and that the JAMs are not unresponsive to animal welfare issues.
Questions remain – and not only about whether Number Ten’s polling, or its reading of it, is correct. What happens when the rush to appease the lobbies may be counterproductive? For example, Matt Ridley has argued that the Gove ban on neonicotinoids will force “farmers backwards to more damaging sprays”, and that “wild bee numbers may or may not have declined: the evidence is ambiguous”. But either way, there is more to Conservative interest in animals than the fox-hunting issue, or garnering more votes. Glance back in time, for example, to the Tory 1992 manifesto, issued after three terms of Thatcher Government. It records increased penalties for organising animal fights, stricter controls on animal experiments than anywhere else in Europe, banning veal crates, laws to protect badgers. May and Cameron carried on where Thatcher and Major left off. If Gove could talk to the animals, talk to the animals…