David Cameron has warned Eurosceptic Tories that quitting the EU would leave farmers facing punishing tariffs on their exports, as he urged the Scottish Conservatives to back his referendum campaign.
Risking fresh charges of scaremongering, the prime minister told the Scottish Tories’ spring conference on Friday that salmon, lamb and beef farmers could face tariffs as high as 70% in countries such as Canada if the UK were excluded from the EU’s overseas trade deals and stood outside the single market.
In a clear challenge to Eurosceptics such as Liam Fox – the Scots-born Tory MP for North Somerset, who had earlier addressed an anti-EU fringe event – Cameron said that Scotland’s exporters and 250,000 jobs relied on untrammelled access to the single market.
“It’s for [Eurosceptics] to look those farmers in the eye and tell them if they’re going to have to pay tariffs and, if so, how much,” he told delegates at the Scottish national rugby stadium, Murrayfield.
Cameron arrived in Edinburgh with recent opinion polls suggesting that a surge in support for the Scottish Tories under its popular leader Ruth Davidson – bringing the party closer to replacing Scottish Labour as Holyrood’s second party – has evaporated.
The polls show that Scotland could vote two to one in favour of remaining in the EU, but Eurosceptics point to a narrowing gap between the in and out votes. Support for leaving the union is slowly edging up; new research suggests that 60% of Scots are critical or sceptical of the EU – the highest level since 1999.
The polls show that 36% of Scottish Tory voters say they will opt to leave – the largest proportionate out vote among Scotland’s five mainstream parties. However, only one Tory MSP at Holyrood, Margaret Mitchell, has openly backed the campaign to leave. Several other Eurosceptics have chosen to back Cameron at the referendum.
Linking the EU vote in June with the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and this May’s Holyrood parliament election, Cameron insisted that voting for the EU was a patriotic choice. Referring to battles for the future of both the UK and the EU, he said: “Being in these two clubs doesn’t diminish Scotland’s identity. It doesn’t make you less of a Scot, or less patriotic. What matters is turning patriotism into action.”
Two recent polls by TNS and Survation put the Scottish Tories at between 13% and 16%, down from 19% earlier this year and still five to eight points behind Scottish Labour. YouGov for the Times put Labour and the Tories neck and neck in early February.
Even so, Cameron insisted that the Tories were still on track to replace Labour as Holyrood’s second party, and the only Scottish party fighting to defend the union. It emerged on Friday that the party is to register itself the Conservative and Unionist party for elections.
Standing under the slogan “Vote Scottish Conservative for a strong opposition”, which explicitly accepts that the Tories will not win power at Holyrood in May, Cameron said: “It falls to us, the Conservatives, the only party fit to expose these spendthrift, out-of-touch, dogmatic, inept nationalists for what they really are.”
Fox, a leading figure in the Vote Leave campaign and former Tory defence secretary, told his audience that recent polling by TNS showed overall Scottish backing for a vote to remain had fallen five points to 44% since last May, with the leave vote up to 21%, while 29% remained undecided.
Fox said that slow growth in support for Brexit in Scotland mirrored the wider growth in Euroscepticism across the UK. He likened it to a popular uprising against the ruling classes. “The remain campaign increasingly looks like the elite, the establishment; it is funded by Goldman Sachs and supported by the European commission,” Fox said.
“It seems to me that the leave campaign has something of the peasant’s revolt about it, and that it is coming up from the grassroots of the country, where people are saying we don’t have to be told that issues of migration and taxation are irrelevant to us.”
Fox said voting to leave was a patriotic choice. He claimed that at the last European referendum in the UK, in 1975, “my parents’ generation sold out my own birthright to be able to make my own laws in my own country. I don’t want to sell out the birthright of future generations. For me, that’s nothing to do with party.”
Without naming Cameron, Fox said supporters of the EU were guilty of systematic scaremongering about the risks of leaving, and misrepresenting the costs of staying in. “Of course there are risks to leaving, but there are huge risks to staying,” he said.
This article was written by Severin Carrell Scotland editor, for theguardian.com on Friday 4th March 2016 15.54 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010