David Cameron suffered a humiliating Commons defeat last night as Tory rebels joined Labour to demand he fights for a cut in EU spending.
He had indicated he would use Britain’s veto unless Brussels agreed to limit its budget increases to the level of inflation.But this did not satisfy the Eurosceptics in his party, who insist on a real-terms reduction.In the first major defeat of Mr Cameron’s premiership, a total of 53 Tory backbenchers voted with Labour, which was accused of cynically shifting its position on EU spending earlier this week to embarrass the Prime Minister. Senior government figures had spent the day pleading with rebel Tories to accept that a real-terms budget freeze was the best possible outcome from a crunch EU summit next week.
But ministers sat grim-faced as Commons Speaker John Bercow announced that MPs had instead backed a call for a cut by 307 votes to 294. Mr Cameron had earlier told MPs: ‘This Government is taking the toughest line in these budget negotiations of any government since we joined the European Union.‘At best we would like it cut, at worst frozen, and I’m quite prepared to use the veto if we don’t get a deal which is good for Britain. But let’s be clear – it is in our interest to try to get a deal because a seven-year freeze would keep our bills down compared to annual budgets.’Ministers insist there is no chance of persuading all other 26 EU member states to accept a real-terms cut in spending, since 17 of them get more out of Brussels spending than they put in.
However, they believe that with most governments being forced to tighten their belts at home in an age of austerity, there is scope for an agreement on a freeze.If Mr Cameron does wield Britain’s veto, no deal will be reached – and under the EU’s rules, the current year’s budget is rolled forward, plus inflation. Annual budgets can be agreed by a majority of member states, rather than the unanimity required for a longer seven-year agreement.
But last night’s vote will increase the pressure on the Prime Minister, who last year became the first to deploy the veto when he refused to sign up to a treaty on ‘fiscal union’, to repeat the exercise at a summit next month.Financial Secretary to the Treasury Greg Clark said: ‘We want to see the EU budget cut. Part of the negotiating mandate that the Prime Minister has agreed is that the very most that we would accept would be a real-terms freeze.
‘If there is no cut or no real freeze, there is no deal. The framework will be vetoed. The Prime Minister has a formidable task in persuading other countries of this, many of whom were looking forward to a seven-year payout.’Rebel Douglas Carswell said: ‘This is not about Tory divisions or Labour hypocrisy, it’s the moment the House of Commons finally said, “Enough is enough”. Enough to the Whitehall elite and the Eurocrats. We will not put up with it any more.’
Peter Bone, another Eurosceptic MP, hailed what he called a ‘remarkable victory’. ‘Parliament spoke for the people,’ he said. ‘There was enormous pressure on colleagues to vote with the Government. It was a very significant victory for the people. It was because MPs have to face their constituents.’There were bizarre scenes in the Commons as backbench Tories clashed with each other and with Labour members.
Veteran MP Edward Leigh compared his colleague Sir Tony Baldry to wartime prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who was accused of selling out to Hitler, after Sir Tony warned it would be an act of supreme ‘self-indulgence’ to defy the Prime Minister.Sir Tony denounced claims by the rebels that defeat strengthens Mr Cameron’s position at next month’s summit as ‘cobblers’.
He warned that failure to back Mr Cameron would cause the Tories to lose the next election. ‘If colleagues are not prepared to support the Prime Minister, every time they go into a division lobby different from that of the Prime Minister, they are weakening the Prime Minister’s negotiating hand in Europe,’ he said.‘We simply cannot carry on with this sort of self-indulgence. If this party hopes to be in government after the next general election, it has just got to get a grip and start supporting the Prime Minister.’
Labour’s Treasury spokesman Chris Leslie, meanwhile, was jeered by Tories who accused Labour, which gave away a huge chunk of Britain’s budget rebate and waved through inflationary increases while in power, of a cynical stunt.Mr Leslie repeatedly refused to say whether Labour would use a budget veto, though his fellow Treasury frontbencher Rachel Reeves had earlier suggested the party might.Mr Leslie said: ‘A real-terms reduction is possible but it requires persuasive diplomacy, careful alliance building and, above all, leadership.’
Senior Right-wingers such as former defence secretary Liam Fox abstained rather than vote on the same side as Labour. But in a hard-hitting speech yesterday Dr Fox warned Mr Cameron that he must threaten to leave the EU or he ‘cannot achieve’ his pledge to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with Brussels.‘If you’re not willing to cross the Rubicon on that point you cannot achieve what we’re trying to achieve,’ he told the Institute of Economic Affairs. Dr Fox said the Tories should enter the next election on a pledge to go ‘back to the Common Market’, stressing economic not political links with Europe and then offer a referendum on the new deal or exit.
A source close to the Prime Minister said: ‘We were expecting to lose this vote. Everyone agrees we want to keep down EU spending. The only difference is how you do that.‘The Prime Minister has made it very clear that a cut is the best case scenario and a freeze is the worst case scenario. He will keep fighting to get the best deal for taxpayers. David Cameron is the only Prime Minister in history to use the veto and our backbenchers understand that. Parliament is absolutely right to express its view. It’s a “take note” motion and we will take note.’ – Dailymail