Shock defeat for Tories in fishing vote

Government loses by two votes
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Political Editor

Tory divisions over Europe were once again brutally exposed last night when the Government suffered the humiliation of a Commons defeat by 299- 297 votes over fishery quotas.

The vote is a severe embarrassment for the Prime Ministerm, John Major, at a time when he had hoped to have united his party at the beginning of the long haul towards a general election in 1996 or 1997.

The Government defeat by the wafer-thin majority came despite a strongly worded appeal by Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, to the Tory rebels not to "compromise" by lining up with Labour against the Government.

Although the vote is unlikely to make any lasting impact on government policy, Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculure, said last night he would "give due weight" to the Commons vote in negotiating fishing cuts ordered by the EU.

The decision came after an acrimonious debate over European Commission proposals - to be discussed by European fishing ministers in Brussels tomorrow - which would mean significant cuts in fishing quotas next year. In a bid to stave off the rebellion, Tony Baldry, the fisheries minister, last night announced the restoration of pounds 4m a year in grants to fishing ports and Spanish agreement to a pounds 100,000 compensation payment to British fishermen for Spanish incursions into British waters.

Bitter divisions between pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics in the party were exposed after John Townend, the Thatcherite MP for Bridlington, said the Government could not be blamed for the betrayal of the fishing industry by Sir Edward Heath. Sir Edward retorted that Mr Townend should be "ashamed" of "degrading" himself by his abusive remarks.

Last night's vote came after the Government had faced opposition within its own ranks to proposed fishery quotas from two distinct sections of the party: MPs with coastal constituencies seriously perturbed at new quotas proposed by the commission; and Eurosceptics committed to seeking withdrawal from the European Common Fisheries Policy.

Proposed new cuts in quotas will mean a 30 per cent reduction in herring, mackerel, and plaice catches. Although cod, haddock and saithe quotas will remain stable, the Government has acknowledged there will be a "significant cut" in North Sea whiting catches.

The Government had already underlined how keen it had been to avoid a defeat - by announcing a reprieve of pounds 12m in harbour, marketing and processing grants over three years which had been cut as a result of the most recent public spending round. Mr Forsyth, who has special credibility with the Eurosceptics, was put up to open the debate instead of Douglas Hogg, the more pro-European Agriculture Minister.

Both the main parties had earlier made strenuous efforts to maximise their votes - bringing back MPs from abroad-and appealing to ill MPs to come to the House of they were capable of voting. Labour MPs including Roland Boyes, who is unwell, and John Fraser, who has been in traction as a result of a car crash, were both brought into vote.

The Liberal Democrats, both the two nationalist parties, the SDLP and the Democratic Unionist Party - whose leader, Ian Paisley, launched an imassioned attack on the impact on the EU of the fishery industry - all voted against the Government. The Ulster Unionists, whose leader, David Trimble, met John Major yesterday to discuss the northern Ireland peace process, left it until late in the day to decide how to vote.

There were signs that the mood among the most entrenched Eurosceptics had hardened over the last 24 hours with some planning to use the vote partly as a means of demonstrating their anxiety at the confirmation of a timetable and name for the single currency at the Madrid summit. Despite Britain having the right to opt-out from the single currency, Eurosceptics have registered dismay at Mr Major's refusal to rule out British membership of monetary union in the next Parliament.