The claim

“The Government will recognise the will of the House.” Downing Street, 24 June, 2011

Cathy Newman checks it out

No wonder David Cameron joked today he’d send in the clowns. After the Government prepared yet another U-turn – this time on circus animals – some crowd-pleasing, diversionary tactics were exactly what the Prime Minister needed. But is all as it seems? Will Ministers recognise the will of the House? Or is a ban on wild animals performing in British circuses still some way off? I’ve been inside the Government’s Big Top to find out.

The analysis

After one Tory MP after another stood up to back Labour’s call for a ban on wild animals in the circus, Downing Street briefed that it would “recognise the will of the House”.

The Government had wanted a licensing regime for circus animals, not a ban. Many of its MPs disagreed. They were delighted when it looked as if they’d got their way.

But the Conservative rebels are now worried that the morning after the night before, the Government is U-turning on the U-turn.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs now says it will “listen” to Parliament – a slightly vaguer commitment than recognising the will of the House. A spokeswoman said tonight: “The Government will listen to the view of the House and is sympathetic to the motion for a ban. We will continue to look carefully at how this could be introduced, but there are unavoidable legal difficulties that we cannot ignore.”

That phrase “unavoidable legal difficulties” is a reference to a long-standing warning from Defra that a total ban could be challenged in the European courts.

That’s been dismissed as scaremongering by supporters of the ban, who embarrassed the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, last week by exposing a factual error she made in front of the Commons.

She told MPs that a legal challenge was underway in Austria, but Junior Minister Jim Paice was forced to come back before MPs and admit that the case she was referring to was not in fact an active one.

Stretching our GCSE German to its limits, FactCheck contacted the Austrian Constitutional Court and we discovered that a case had been hastily filed within days of the row in Parliament being reported, so it’s technically true to say that there is a legal challenge to a national ban on circuses going through a European court.

But this is a case that has already been heard by the European Commission and the European Ombudsman and fallen flat. No date has even been set for a preliminary hearing in Austria.

The Defra spokeswoman added: “Our priority is the safety and well-being of animals. Given that a ban is not an immediate possibility, we will proceed with a tough licensing regime which will stop circuses from using these wild animals if they don’t provide very high welfare standards.”

That has incensed some of the Conservatives who are arguing so passionately for a ban. As FactCheck reported last night, Mark Pritchard stunned the Commons when he revealed how much pressure Downing Street had put him under to get him to toe the line. Tonight, he took another pop at what he and his colleagues believe is the arrogance of Number Ten.

He told FactCheck: “The decision to ban wild animals in circuses in England was voted through unanimously. The Prime Minister cannot discard the will of Parliament, which is the voice of the people, like it is some sort of public school debating chamber.

“Parliament is supreme – not the Executive. This is rapidly becoming a constitutional issue – not just an animal welfare issue.”

The bigger mystery though is why Downing Street was so desperate to get its way on an issue which affects so few. There are only around 40 wild animals performing in British circuses.

FactCheck revealed last night that Amazing Animals, a company which tames wild animals, is based in Mr Cameron’s Witney constituency. One of its directors, James Clubb, yesterday denied he had met the PM. But tonight we can reveal that the PM has met his wife, Sally Chipperfield, who is also a director of the company.

Mr Cameron’s spokeswoman told FactCheck: “The Prime Minister has a lady in his constituency who has an interest in animals. He has not had a meeting with her since becoming Prime Minister.”

The spokeswoman declined to say when Mr Cameron had last met her.

Ms Chipperfield is a big name in circus circles. Chipperfield’s was a famous British circus dynasty, going back centuries.

Ms Chipperfield was a circus proprietor – although she now supplies beasts to the TV and film industry not the circus.

FactCheck has also learned of another link between Amazing Animals and the Conservatives, though it’s one the party may choose to forget.

Back in 1997, when David Cameron was still a fresh-faced PR executive, the Tories drafted in a lion trained by James Clubb to feature in an advertising campaign.

King the lion was pictured shedding red tears on the election posters, in a symbolic reference to how national pride would supposedly suffer under a Labour government.

But senior Tories were reportedly disappointed by the image, created by Maurice Saatchi, and rival advertising directors queued up to criticise the lion poster.

Whether King played a part in ensuring a landslide victory for Tony Blair’s New Labour that year is of course a matter of conjecture.

Cathy Newman’s verdict

The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman insists his opposition to a ban has nothing to do with his constituency’s circus links. “The PM is not personally motivated on this subject,” she said.

It remains odd though that the Government is still clinging to a licensing regime – using some pretty remote legal obstacles as cover. As a result, some Tory MPs are now snarling like caged animals.

Ringmaster Cameron has some serious taming to do.