Tories all at sea in row over trawler ‘kidnapped’ by the French

It’s war. At least it would be if a handful of Tory MPs got their way. And who better to fight than the French? Our oldest enemy. The cause of the dispute was the British trawler detained overnight by our beastly neighbours for allegedly fishing without permission in French territorial waters, and now the subject of an urgent question in the Commons.

It was left to George Eustice, the secretary of state for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to try to negotiate a peace. Or failing that, a truce.

If the French were to intensify their checks on seafood at Calais, then the food supply chain really would be in trouble. He still wasn’t entirely clear quite what had happened, he insisted, but he was sure it was all just a misunderstanding of some sort.

The fishing boat had been on a list but now for some reason had been taken off that list. Perhaps it was a licence that had expired a few days ago and that the skipper had failed to renew or something.

It was unthinkable that a British vessel would have done anything seriously wrong and that once he had had a chance to speak to the French authorities, the confusion would be resolved.

This was pretty much good enough for Luke Pollard, the shadow Defra secretary. He had as little interest in going to war as Eustice, though he did point out that the botched Brexit negotiations might have played a part in the French actions. After all, there was very little that Lord Frost did not appear to have made worse.

Eustice was appalled by the idea. Frost had done everything by the book and if 2% of French trawlers had not had their licences to fish in UK waters renewed that was only because the UK was following the letter of the trade and cooperation agreement.

And the UK would never dream of not obeying international law when it came to Brexit. Apart from threatening to ditch the Northern Ireland protocol. So to suggest the seizure of the British boat was the French getting their retaliation in early was absurd.

None of which was well received by the Tories on Eustice’s backbenches. They – almost certainly correctly – thought that getting their retaliation in early was exactly what the French were doing and wanted to escalate tension by making a bad situation worse. We were in the right and we needed to teach Johnny Frenchman a lesson.

Michael Fabricant, Bob Seely, Craig Williams, Andrew Bowie and Tim Loughton were all up for making sure the French were made to pay. Another hundred years war.

Andrew Bridgen went further. This was all the doing of the Tin-Pot Napoleon, Emmanuel Macron, who wanted to look tough with a tricky election campaign beginning. Thank God, we don’t have our own pumped-up narcissist who would play political games to win favour with his own home audience.

No one actually went so far as to call on Eustice to send in the navy to free the trawler but it can only be a matter of time.

What no one mentioned was the state of the waters around Britain’s coast. Presumably there aren’t that many takers for fishing in raw sewage at the moment.

Besides, that had been partially dealt with by Rebecca Pow, the most junior of ministers and resident departmental mug, during Defra questions earlier in the day. Pow was keen to show that she had the problem in hand. Rubber-gloved hands, natch.

It was like this. When the government had ordered its backbenchers to vote against an amendment banning water companies from pumping raw sewage into rivers and the sea, it had really been a training exercise to make sure that Tory backbenchers were dumb enough to vote for any old crap. Literally. And she was pleased to report that they were.

But now the point had been proved, Defra wanted everyone to do the exact opposite so there wasn’t a cholera epidemic during Cop26. Three billion’s worth of the £650bn project to update the UK’s sewer network was now complete – as good as finished really – so it would be nice if people, especially Tory backbenchers who had been made to look half-witted, could remember their pledge to have a nicer, kinder politics and stop sending her abusive emails. Pow sat down, never to be seen again until the next departmental screw-up.

Later in the day, it was only the proverbial shit that was hitting the fan. The day after the budget traditionally belongs to the geeks, who have been up all night crunching all the numbers in the small print that the government would rather most people missed. And what the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the independent economics thinktank, had found wasn’t altogether encouraging for Brand Rishi.

First up, there was no help for the unemployed, and middle-earners would face £3k in tax rises. Then there were rising energy prices, inflation and low growth with which to deal. Spending on education was almost nonexistent. Debt was still vast. Tax at its highest level since 1950s. Brexit more damaging to the economy than Covid.

And, unlike the narrative of his budget speech, Sunak had had choices. He could have cut taxes, but he had gone along with Bertie Booster’s agenda.

All of which gave Ed Miliband plenty of material as he opened the second day of the budget debate. He spoke with humour as well as edge. He takes himself far less seriously and seems to be enjoying himself far more since he stopped being Labour leader.

Miliband was certainly far too much for the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, whose ambivalence about the budget is matched by that of most of his party. They all like being liked and can’t work out whether the country will hate them in a year’s time. It’s too early to say the budget has unravelled. But it’s certainly becoming loose.

A Farewell to Calm by John Crace (Guardian Faber, £9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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