How row over fishing post-Brexit could impact Scottish Tories

When they were elected to Westminster after the snap general election last year, the newly bolstered ranks of the Scottish Conservatives promised a different approach to the SNP politicians they replaced.
Ruth Davidson. Picture: AFP/GettyRuth Davidson. Picture: AFP/Getty
Ruth Davidson. Picture: AFP/Getty

The ongoing row between Scottish Tory MPs and the Conservative Government, however, is reminiscent of the battles between the SNP and various Westminster administrations.

One MP, Ross Thompson, is now so apoplectic about the arrangement for fishing during the Brexit transition period he will take to the Thames tomorrow on a boat from which he will ‘symbolically’ dump fish in the river to signify his anger about what many see as a betrayal.

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Brexit deal sparks furious row over Scotland's fishing industry
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Fishing communities – a small but important political constituency – are furious about the deal struck between Britain and the EU that prolongs the UK’s adherence to the Common Fisheries Policy.

We look at the impact it could have on the fledgling group of Scottish Conservative MPs and their leader Ruth Davidson.

The row

Yesterday’s announcement couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Scottish Conservatives, even as the UK Government was congratulating itself on a job well done in the negotiations.

Despite the lack of agreement on the Irish border issue, which has again been kicked down the road, the EU and the UK have come together on a number of different sticking points.

One of those is fishing, which was a clear win for the remaining 27 nations of the European Union as the EU will continue to set quotas until 2020, not 2019 as previously hoped.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk MP John Lamont had said on Twitter that he would accept nothing less than full control of fishing during the transitional period.

To underline how serious he was, the former MSP added the hashtag #nonnegotiable.

Ruth Davidson had earlier teamed up with Environment Secretary Michael Gove, with whom she has had significant disagreements with in the past, to reiterate in a joint statement that as of Britain’s departure from the EU in 2019, full control of fishing would return to the UK.

The reaction

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Moray MP Douglas Ross has arguably had the most forceful non fish-throwing reaction, saying he couldn’t present the deal as anything other than bad news.

Scottish Tory politicians, who made a big deal of presenting their overtures to Chancellor Philip Hammond before his Budget speech as respectful, but forceful (in contrast, they say, to the SNP) made no secret of their anger.

Ms Davidson was also found in front of a camera expressing her disappointment at the deal, but stressing fishing communities should keep their eyes on the bigger prize.

Those communities were disinclined to see the glass as half-full and hit out at the agreement, with words like betrayal and capitulation being used liberally.

The damage

If the Scottish Tory bloc of MPs really do have outside influence, then now is the time to wield it.

Rumours have already leaked that Chief Whip Julian Smith dismissed the concerns of MPs in fishing communities by telling them “it’s not like fishermen will vote Labour”.

Considering the Scottish Conservatives made gains at the expense of the SNP, who will use this row to target fishing communities, that would, to quote Douglas Ross MP, have gone down like a cup of cold sick.

Mr Gove expressed his disappointment, while again stressing long-term gains.

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He will likely have to offer more than platitudes to keep the Scottish Conservative group onboard, although the chances of them voting down a final Brexit deal remain slim.

Ms Davidson too, for all that she hit out at the SNP for perceived hypocrisy in wanting to remain in the Common Fisheries Policy, has been stung by the row.

Her influence with Theresa May and the government has been talked up since the election of last year, something the Scottish Tory leader has, to say the least, not discouraged.

With no election looming, there is likely to be little immediate electoral impact for the Conservatives in Scotland.

As a number of now-unemployed SNP politicians could tell you, however, fishing communities are not averse to changing their votes.

If perceived betrayals and u-turns like this become a regular theme, the Scottish Conservative MPs could find their numbers dwindling at an alarming rate.