Michael Bosustow rubs his weary eyes as he climbs out of the cabin of his netter, Annie-May, which is tied up on the harbourside in Newlyn, near the western tip of Cornwall. He has been awake for about 30 hours and needs to prepare for another couple of days at sea. But he can still summon the energy to condemn the Conservative party for striking a deal with the EU that he – like many in this tight-knit fishing town – regards as a betrayal.

“We are dying out here – we are all getting older and there aren’t enough youngsters following us,” he says as the pale spring sun rises and gusts of cool Atlantic wind flap Cornish flags. “We could have got more fish and created a better future for the youngsters. It’s a missed opportunity.”

The UK-EU trade agreement, which came into force in January, gives British boats a greater share of fish that can be caught in UK waters, but also allows European boats to fish in those waters until at least 2026, with many in the industry expecting that to continue for years to come. Border hold-ups and requirements to purify shellfish before export to the EU have hit earnings and led to some consignments being left to rot.

The struggles of the fishing industry could pose problems for the Conservatives in Cornwall in crucial council elections next month – the first electoral test since the pandemic hit over a year ago. Although the Tories are the largest single group in the council chamber – Cornwall has a unitary authority for the whole county – the Liberal Democrats were able to regain control by forming a coalition with independent councillors in 2017.

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Those hoping to deliver Boris Johnson’s goal of a Conservative-led council in time for the G7 summit in Cornwall in June will have to tread carefully in places like Newlyn, which is home to England’s biggest fishing fleet.

Bosustow, 48, a Brexit supporter, will not be supporting the Tories on 6 May. “We are not going to forget when it comes to voting time,” he says. “I don’t feel like they [the Conservatives] deserve my vote at the moment.”

Brackan Pearce: ‘They lied to us. They used us to get Brexit.’
Brackan Pearce: ‘They lied to us. They used us to get Brexit.’ Photograph: Tom Wall/The Observer

Further down the quay, Brackan Pearce, 28, is restocking his trawler. He travelled up the Thames as part of a flotilla of fishing boats demanding control of British waters during the referendum campaign in 2016. Now he feels betrayed. “They lied to us. They’ve used us to get Brexit. Without the boats going up the Thames, Brexit would never have happened,” he says from the deck of his boat.

The deal, he says, is the worst of all worlds. “It’s a complete sellout. It’s a betrayal. The deal we have got is lose-lose. We have got friction at the borders and they [EU fishing boats] have still got access to our waters.” Johnson has lost his support: “I can’t vote Conservative.”

Newlyn’s fishers and fish merchants survived the near-complete shutdown of the hospitality industry during the pandemic by selling more to shops and direct to the public. But Brexit has caused a whole new set of problems, because 80% of the catch they land usually gets exported to Europe.

The port’s harbour master, Rob Parsons, has seen the impact of border checks and delays up close. “Fishermen would say it has been ‘a lash-up’ – it means it’s been really bad,” he says, perched on a wall outside his small office. “In January, next-day delivery became two to three days and that hugely impacted on the price.”

Prices for some fish fell to the point where they were not worth catching. “Hake is normally about £5 to £6 a kilo. It fluctuates daily but we’re down to 60p,” says Parsons over the squawk of gulls. “In order to make a trip – one boat going out for five days – you need to clear £2.20 a kilo.”

Thalia Marrington, Lib Dem candidate for the ward, is trying to avoid the issue of Brexit altogether.
Thalia Marrington, Lib Dem candidate for the ward, is trying to avoid the issue of Brexit altogether. Photograph: Tom Wall/The Observer

Outside the port, there are many in Newlyn who share the fishers’ frustrations. On a park bench, below the colourful jumble of cottages and terraces rising up the hill, two neighbours, who typically vote Conservative, are considering voting for other parties. “The fishermen have been shat on,” says Helen Lugg, 47, a chef, who has lived in Newlyn all her life. “For working villages like this which rely on fishing, it’s bad.”

The port is a constant presence in their lives even though they don’t work in the fishing industry. “Each boat that goes out we watch for it to come back in,” says Jan Crawford, 62. “They work hard and risk a lot.” She will not be voting Tory in May. “We were lied to,” she says. “I used to be Conservative but not any more.”

The village’s current Conservative councillor, Roger Harding, who is not standing again, also believes the fishers’ frustrations may cost his party. “They will lose votes over it,” he says in the gloomy office of the car showroom he owns near the port. “In a way, the fishermen were expecting something that couldn’t be delivered, but certainly there is unhappiness. They will be showing their discontent.”

However, the two main candidates vying for the newly created Mousehole, Newlyn and St Buryan electoral division are avoiding the political fallout from the deal. The Lib Dems’ energetic newcomer, Thalia Marrington, is keen to help the port prosper outside the EU, but is steering clear of issues connected to Brexit. “It’s been so divisive. To me it’s happened – we need to move on. I literally don’t mention it,” she says, pushing her bike stuffed with leaflets through the village.

The Conservative candidate William Bolitho, another newcomer, is saddened that some in Newlyn won’t be turning out for the party. “I’m disappointed by it,” he says, on his farm in the windswept hills above the village. But he adds that he understands their frustrations: “They didn’t get what they expected and I do feel for them.”



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