Tory appeal to party loyalty fails to win day

Inside Parliament : Fishing quotas: Government in effort to avoid more embarrassing divisions on Europe
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With defeat looming at the hands Euro-sceptics and Tories representing fishing ports in yesterday's debate on fisheries policy, the Government responded with a combination of cash and appeals to party loyalty.

Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, urged MPs from the South-west and the east coast not to risk compromising the respect they had earned among the fishing communities by voting with Labour, who he called "a bunch of sell-out merchants". However, his pleas were in vain as a motion endorsing government fisheries policy was rejected by 299 votes to 297.

And in case the rhetoric of the one of the most Euro-sceptical Cabinet ministers was not enough, part way through the debate Tony Baldry, the junior fisheries minister, announced the reinstatement of grants for improvements to harbours and fish marketing and processing. The grants, worth pounds 2m to the industry, had been axed for England and Wales in the Budget.

To jeers from Opposition benches, Mr Baldry said the change of mind followed representations by Tory fishing MPs. He also disclosed an offer to fishermen of pounds 100,000 in compensation from Spain whose vessels get greater access to UK waters from January.

European fisheries ministers meet in Brussels later this week to consider further cuts on catches of herring, mackerel and plaice in the North Sea and significant restrictions for fishermen in the South-west, the Irish Sea and west of Scottish waters.

The appearance of Mr Forsyth at the despatch box was an odd move. Normally fisheries debates are opened by agriculture minister and though Mr Forsyth recalled his upbringing in Abroath, his principal job seemed to be charm the Euro-sceptics. His soul mate, Michael Portillo, was on the front bench for the opening speech, an unusual setting for the Secretary of State for Defence. Meanwhile, the Minister of Agriculture, Douglas Hogg, was roaming the backbenchers trying to cajole potential rebels.

Mr Forsyth said he understood fishermen's fear about the Common Fisheries Policy allowing equal access by all EU fleets but believed it was exaggerated. "There is no Spanish Armada," he said - and that was because the Government had not walked away from the CFP but improved it from within.

Tory Euro-sceptics argued for abandoning the CFP altogether and when Mr Forsyth said he was sure they did not want the UK to act in breach of its Treaty obligations there was a cry of "Oh yes we do". Intervening, John Townend, the right-wing MP for Bridlington, said he had some sympathy for Mr Forsyth. "He can't be blamed for the betrayal of the fishing industry by Sir Edward Heath," he said.

The former Tory prime minister made no immediate reaction, but later turned on his party colleague, describing the remark as "abusive".

I am not a traitor to my country," Sir Edward said, claiming the CFP arrangements that fishermen complain of were laid down in 1983, long after his prime ministership. Full of scorn for the sceptics, Sir Edward had more time for the fishing MPs but reminded them they owed their constituents not only their energies but their judgement. He did not think even fishermen wanted to destroy the Government.

Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokesman, called for reform of the CFP to "ensure the conservation and fair allocation of fish stocks".

"Labour have been arguing for some time that there is a powerful case for greater national control within the framework of reform of the CFP," Mr Strang said. But pressed by Mr Baldry as to what this meant could only confused phrases about "a system of management which is closer to our coastal waters" and "greater involvement of national government".

The debate really centred on the Tory side. David Harris, whose St Ives constituency also includes the port of Newlyn,said he was torn between the need to support the Government and the wishes of his constituents. "I don't want to see my government defeated. I don't think that would be in the interests of the country. However, it is incumbent on people like myself to speak up for the fishing industry."