Scottish Secretary David Mundell has said the UK will not be bound by the EU Common Fisheries Policy beyond the end of 2020 “regardless of what else happens”.
Whitehall sources immediately dismissed any suggestion the Tory frontbencher was making a new announcement and simply restating government policy.
But the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) seized on his remarks as confirmation that fishing would be exempted in the event of any extension to the Brexit implementation period.
It is due to conclude at the end of December 2020, but Theresa May told the Commons last month a short lengthening could be “preferable” as the UK tries to reach a deal with the EU.
This prompted fears CFP rules would in turn apply for longer.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has insisted he is “invincibly” confident the agreed timetable will be honoured.
The prime minister has stopped short of giving this guarantee, however, although she has said the interests of UK fishermen will be at the “forefront of our thinking”.
If the UK is not negotiating as an independent coastal state by the end of 2020, then it will be locked into CFP terms for another cycle, namely throughout 2021.
Asked about the situation, Mr Mundell said Mrs May “fully appreciates” the issue and is “very clear”.
He added: “I have been very clear with her and she has been very clear with me and indeed my colleagues who have raised this issue.
“The UK will be an independent coastal state at the negotiations in relation to fishing in December 2020, regardless of what else happens.”
The SFF claimed the remarks amounted to a ruling-out of the UK being bound by the CFP beyond December 2020 whatever the circumstances.
Chief Executive Bertie Armstrong described the comments as “much needed and welcome news”, adding: “A delay of even one day means a delay of one year until the next round of annual negotiations…We need to take our seat at the international table.”
Banff and Buchan MP David Duguid told the Press and Journal he could not see “any reason” why the UK could not negotiate as an independent coastal state at the December 2020 council meeting.
He added: “That’s about as categoric on the subject as I have ever heard the secretary of state speak.”
But Whitehall sources played down the significance of Mr Mundell’s remarks, suggesting he made them without any reference to the context of a possible transition extension.