Cameron embarrassed by defeat in Europe budget vote


British prime minister David Cameron suffered a major embarrassment last night after Labour united with rebel Conservative MPs to demand cuts in the European Union’s budget over the next seven years.

Following days of appeals to Conservative MPs to stay united, a majority of MPs accepted a motion demanding a cut in the EU’s budget, rather than the inflation-matching deal that Mr Cameron believes is possible in Brussels talks later this month.

Labour leader Ed Miliband’s decision to throw his party’s weight behind the rebel Conservatives illustrates the increasingly Eurosceptical debate about the EU now taking place in Britain.

However, it also, perhaps, reflects Mr Miliband’s belief that Conservative disunity on the EU can be exploited in the run-up to the 2015 general election in the same way eruptions 20 years ago over Maastricht damaged the Conservatives in voters’ eyes.

The European Commission has demanded a £826 billion budget over seven years from 2014 – a five percentage point rise in real terms on the numbers enjoyed from 2007, even though member states are making cutbacks. Shortly before the vote, Number 10 Downing Street quietly accepted it would lose, but added: “Parliament can express a view but the EU budget is not going to be decided by parliament. It’s going to be decided by the EU Council.”

Last night, Conservative MPs who voted against the Conservatives/Liberal Democrat whip said they had actually strengthened Mr Cameron’s hand in advance of the Brussels talks.

Democratic Ulster Unionist MP Nigel Dodds, who supported Conservative MP Mark Reckless’s amendment, said the vote was “a wonderful opportunity for the prime minister to take increased bargaining power to Brussels”.

Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams represented the views of many in the junior coalition party, saying that the Commons had witnessed “naked opportunistic posturing by Labour”.

Former Liberal Democrat energy secretary Chris Hulme said Conservative Eurosceptics’ real ambition was “to provoke a crisis in the EU”, rather than any desire simply to curb Brussels’s spending.However, a succession of Conservative and Labour MPs repeatedly said they could not justify extra UK payments to Brussels at a time when public spending is facing its tightest curbs for decades.

Former Labour minister for Europe and Welsh MP Chris Bryant said it was not possible for MPs “to say to our own constituents that they have to live on less money when we are giving more to the EU”.

Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, one of those who defied Mr Cameron, said: “This is not about Tory division, or Labour hypocrisy. This is when the House of Commons said enough is enough to the EU/Whitehall elite.”

Mr Cameron’s position is complicated as he will not stop rises in the EU budget by vetoing a deal, since the existing budget would be rolled over for a year, adjusted for inflation.

However, Mr Reckless said this would be better than acceding to the European Commission’s demands, since the commission acknowledged one-year budgeting would cause serious problems.