| Hunting with dogs ban unlikely to get free vote admit top Tories|
|Senior Conservatives appear to have dashed any hopes of a free vote on whether to repeal the law against hunting with dogs any time soon.|
Within hours of the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, signalling no early prospect of reversing the ban because ministers thought they would lose the vote in parliament, the party chairman, Grant Shapps, said there seemed no chance of winning a majority on the issue.
As Labour suggested the Conservatives had recognised the country thought it was time to move on over hunting, thousands turned out to take part in or watch legal hunts on Boxing Day.
Those campaigning for foxes to be a legitimate quarry remained confident that the coalition would try to repeal Labour's 2004 Hunting Act, which introduced the ban in England and Wales.
Shapps told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "It makes sense to bring something forward if you think there's chance of a parliamentary majority and at the moment there doesn't appear to be one." The hunting issue had "not been a feature of this parliament". There was "precious little point" in going ahead if you thought "you are not going to win the votes or rather that parliament is not going to change the law".
Earlier, Paterson had told the Daily Telegraph: "There is only a point having a vote if you are going to win." He said there needed "to be more work done on members of parliament"; ministers intended a free vote on the issue "at the appropriate moment" and David Cameron was personally committed to legalising fox hunting.
Simon Hart, the former Countryside Alliance chief executive who is now Tory MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, told the BBC nothing had changed. Paterson was as resolute as ever, Cameron too. Compromises had to be made within the coalition but there was time in this parliament for a free vote.
Sir Barney White-Spunner, the Countryside Alliance's executive chairman, told BBC Radio 4's Today: "We know when the act came in that it took a huge amount of parliamentary time, more time than debates over Iraq, and we know that actually if you are going to go for some form of repeal then it would probably take another huge amount of time at a time when the government and parliament has got other priorities.
"I think people are absolutely sensible and mature about that but I am absolutely confident the act will be repealed."
The remarks came as a poll by Ipsos Mori, for the RSPCA, League Against Cruel Sports and International Fund for Animal Welfare, suggested most of the public wanted the ban kept. Dawn Varley, of the league, said: "I think it shows the government are really seeing sense and are recognising the will of the British public."
Mary Creagh, the shadow environment secretary, said most people accepted there was no place for animal cruelty "in a civilised society".
The Labour MP for Newport West, Paul Flynn, said on Twitter: "No return to tormenting foxes for fun because vast majority of MPs and country know that it's a cruel, unnecessary, relic of a barbaric past … Gutless Tories bleat but refuse to put hunting ban to the vote because they know democracy will reject gratuitous cruelty again."
Flynn added: "Tories digging their next election grave: 'Vote Tory to bring back cruelty to foxes'. Keep up the self-destruction. Even fewer MPs in 2015."
In an interview with the Independent, Gavin Grant, chief executive of the RSPCA, said: "If the prime minister feels he wants to have his vote then let him have his vote. He will discover he's going to lose and maybe that's necessary to end this discussion about the act."
As the Thurlow Hunt set off in Suffolk, its master, Robin Vestey, told the BBC that the present law was "not entirely clear". It was "a failed act and the sooner we sort it out the better".
Vestey claimed there were hunt opponents trying to get supporters "into trouble, come what may" because they did not like the look of those hunting.
At the East Cornwall hunt meeting, the hunt master, Graham Higgins, said the law was "a can of worms" for the police. "It's a can of worms for the courts, and it's a real headache for us to go about hunting legally."
In Hadleigh, Essex, where hundreds were reported to have turned out to watch the Essex and Suffolk hunt, one supporter, Caroline Wilmot, told the East Anglian Daily Times: "I don't really think many people who come out to watch the Hadleigh hunt think about the whole political message or the ideas behind hunting. I personally follow the hunt because I love dogs and horses and I think it's a wonderful tradition to come out in the fresh air on Boxing Day and take advantage of our lovely countryside."
The Duke of Beaufort's hunt, publishing details of its programme of hunts in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, stressed "we intend to carry out only legal activities".
Since the ban, hunts have continued by using hounds to hunt a trail laid with a rag soaked in fox scent, or flush out a fox so it can be caught by a bird of prey.
This month the RSPCA successfully prosecuted two members of Cameron's local hunt, the Heythrop, for intentionally hunting a fox with dogs.