Jackson Carlaw has said his party is prepared to fight the 2021 Scottish Parliament election on a “pro-Union ticket” should the SNP seek a mandate for indyref2 in its manifesto.
The First Minister this week accused the Tories of attempting to “exploit” the debate around a second independence referendum to avoid difficult questions over Brexit.
Scottish secretary David Mundell has faced repeated calls for his resignation amid claims the political declaration that followed the withdrawal deal has “sold out” the fishing industry.
Speaking exclusively to Scotland on Sunday, Carlaw admitted Britain was likely to be worse off after leaving the European Union.
But he said public opinion was now on the side of Prime Minister Theresa May as she attempts to win hearts and minds ahead of the crucial Brexit vote in the House of Commons on 11 December.
“I said in 2014 that if Scotland voted to be out of the UK, I would respect the result and throw my weight completely behind the SNP and the negotiation to secure the best possible deal for Scotland,” he said.
“I never said it would be better, but I said it was about respecting the result of the referendum and working to implement that best deal for Scotland. It’s exactly the same argument now.
“Do I think the future outside of the EU is better than the future we had inside the EU? Probably not. But the opportunities for us to succeed outside of the European Union are definitely there.”
Carlaw, whose constituency lies in East Renfrewshire where nearly three-quarters of voters favoured staying in the EU, is deputising for party leader Ruth Davidson while she is on maternity leave.
He said he had sought her support and help in regular phonecalls as she takes a break from politics following the birth of her son Finn in October.
But his party at Westminster has appeared split on the Brexit fishing deal, with Aberdeen South MP Ross Thomson describing as “unacceptable” any agreement which would see the UK remaining in the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) even on a temporary basis.
Despite his reservations over leaving the EU, Carlaw said he believes the fishing industry may be one of the areas to see a Brexit benefit.
“We understand this was a real problem for the Conservative party historically in the North-east,” he said. “We’ve got new MPs up there who are very sensitive to the needs of the community. Some of them might want further assurances from the Prime Minister, but I think the basics of the agreement we need to see put in place are now there.
“Obviously we’ve never said there won’t be anyone outside of the UK who isn’t fishing in our waters, but the key point is that it will be as part of an agreement that we control so that the access and the quotas will be part of that annual negotiation. I’m confident that we have got what will make the difference in relation to fishing.”
During his time filling in for his party’s leader at First Minister’s Questions, Carlaw has repeatedly clashed with Sturgeon over the subject of a second independence referendum.
While the SNP leader has so far refused to be drawn on when she intends to seek permission for a second referendum, a request is expected to be made at some point next year.
Carlaw doesn’t believe the matter would be resolved once and for all with a second vote.
He said: “I know if we have a second independence referendum and defeat it, there will be a circle of flag-waving Saltire nationalists around this Parliament saying they’ve begun the campaign for indyref3 and then indyref4. The problem for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP is that outside of that evangelical core of people who believe in independence – and I respect and understand that – there is a majority of public opinion that hasn’t shifted and is fed up of the whole thing.”
Carlaw said Sturgeon had “teased the nation” with her “will I, won’t I?” approach to calling a second referendum, attempting to foster “grudge and grievance” to win support for a new vote.
“We will certainly oppose that,” he said. “The Prime Minister has made it perfectly clear now is not the time.
“I’ve also heard [Sturgeon] might try and make an argument for it in her next election manifesto. I understand there is a core SNP vote that even if the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling will still respond to the dog-whistle when she says ‘let’s ramp up the argument again’, but I think the country is tired of that. If that is the platform on which she wants to have and conduct the next Scottish elections, then we are ready for that. We would run on a pro-Union ticket, saying that if people voted for us there would be no further independence referendum.”
The Tories’ political opponents at Holyrood will vote on Wednesday for a motion opposing the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement.
The SNP, Labour, Greens and Lib Dems have all signed up to the motion, which they hope will send a unified message of Holyrood’s opposition to the deal.
Carlaw said he was “astonished” Labour and the Lib Dems had backed the motion.
“I understand the SNP are already briefing that if that is passed, it supports the case for independence,” he said. “I’m astonished that Richard Leonard and Willie Rennie are allowing themselves to be led by the nose into Nicola Sturgeon’s independence abattoir.”