The opposition parties appear to have decided to try to make puppies the next big wedge issue, as they accuse the Conservatives of “giving the green light to puppy smuggling” after the Tories dropped a suite of animal welfare legislation, which included a crackdown on intensive dog breeding practices.
Labour and the Lib Dems have launched petitions urging people to give their details in order to “help stop puppy smuggling”. As with the sewage scandal, senior figures in the opposition parties believe this is an issue that can galvanise the public.
Indeed, a strategist in the Labour party said its puppy petition was their second most popular after the sewage one, even though it has only been up for a week.
The shadow environment secretary, Jim McMahon, visited Battersea Dogs & Cats Home last week when he heard the government was going to drop the bill.
He said: “The government’s decision to give the green light to puppy farmers and smugglers shows you simply can’t trust the Tories to deliver on animal welfare. Labour’s track record is one of delivering the landmark Animal Welfare and Hunting Acts, and it’s clear only a Labour government can be trusted to deliver on animal welfare safeguards.”
The Liberal Democrats also seemed to believe this issue could cut through and tarnish the Tories’ reputation among swing voters in marginal seats. It appeared the party was planning a series of actions to bring the issue of puppy smuggling to the public’s attention.
Next week, Lib Dem MPs plan to present a bill to parliament that will “prevent and punish the theft of dogs below a certain age and deter the unlawful importation of certain animals into Great Britain”. It is thought unlikely the government would support it and give the Lib Dems control of the order paper, which would enable opposition parties to claim the government had once again failed to act to stop puppy smuggling.
The Liberal Democrats’ environment spokesperson Tim Farron said: “Britain is a nation of pet lovers and people are really angry that this Conservative government just doesn’t seem to care. This is a really simple thing to deliver, a law that will protect against pet smuggling and pet theft – and I expect the fact the Conservatives have failed will cut through to voters.”
A Lib Dem insider added that campaigners in marginal seats said as soon as the bill was dropped, the issue started coming up on the doorstep, and that it had generated traffic “outside the Westminster bubble”.
Tory sources said leading Brexit-backing MPs were thinking of launching their own parliamentary petition asking for the legislation to be returned. Insiders said they feared the wide-ranging kept-animals bill, which covered everything from a ban on keeping primates as pets to improving dog welfare, would have implications for the keeping of hunting hounds.
When explaining the shelving of the bill, minister Mark Spencer alluded to “political games” he anticipated Labour playing, thought to be a reference to plans to use the bill to crackdown on trail hunting, which could anger influential Conservatives.
Joe Twyman, who runs polling company Deltapoll, said puppy welfare was not an immediate priority for most Britons compared with issues such as inflation, and that animal welfare issues were unlikely to swing the next election. However, he said it was clear opposition parties believed pushing this message would help tarnish the Conservative party’s reputation.
“My sense is that [the use of animals in campaign adverts] is for two reasons,” he said. “Firstly, it’s a visual thing. It attracts attention and elicits an emotional response, which is particularly important in the world of social media.
“Secondly, and probably more importantly, it sends a message not just about a specific policy or policies, but more broadly about the type of party Labour are versus the type of party the Conservatives are. They are selling the idea that Labour are caring and compassionate.
“Labour would help an old person across the road, Labour would stroke a cute little puppy etc. The Tories, on the other hand, will shit in your water and murder your dog. Again, focus groups will help a party understand that.”
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