Today's Commons vote is about much more than the EU budget
By Paul Goodman
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You believe that such an outcome ought to be simple to effect. But you are beset by conflicting advice, for your Euro-sceptic colleagues disagree among themselves.
- Vote for the Reckless/Pritchard amendment, which calls for "a real-terms cut in Britain’s contribution to the EU budget", advises Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP and leading Euro-sceptic thinker. "If the Reckless amendment goes through, ministers will have to conduct negotiations within the parameters laid down by our elected representatives". Mr Hannan wants the Government to follow the example of Margaret Thatcher, who in 1984 "asked the Treasury to draw up a contingency plan for the unilateral withholding of Britain’s contributions".
- No, support the Rees-Mogg/Bone amendment, retorts Andrea Leadsom, the Tory MP and leading light of the Fresh Start Group, which suggests that a freeze in the EU budget might be acceptable. The Reckless/Pritchard amendment should be opposed, in her view, because pushing for a cut, and using the veto if one isn't agreed, could leave Britain paying a higher contribution to the EU budget than if a freeze is agreed. And because the Rees Mogg/Bone amendment specifically calls for the proposed Financial Transaction Tax to be vetoed. Oh, and because the Reckless/Pritchard amendment lets Labour off the hook: she seems to imply that its movers have collaborated with Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander.
- No, support the Reckless/Pritchard amendment after all, argues Douglas Carswell - because the Government motion will "give the EU seven years license to take more of our money", and because the Reckless/Pritchard amendment points the way to fewer EU programmes "according to the European Commission...Organisations benefiting from EU funding" says a Commission briefing paper "would face sever drawback". Yep. In other words, less Eurocracy. I'll vote for that." Peter Hoskin made some of the same points on this site yesterday.
- Finally, it's worth reading Christopher Howarth of Open Europe, who writes that even a freeze "could actually mean a rise in the UK’s net contribution". He says that a British veto could leave Britain paying a higher contribution to the EU budget than would otherwise be the case. However, he also says that this might not be the case: "the scenarios that could play out after a UK veto may not be that much worse for the UK than those already on the table (including, ironically, the UK’s own suggested ‘freeze')".
- Yet again, Fresh Start and other Euro-sceptic Tories are at odds: they have clashed before over bailouts. This difference is a sign of a bigger one. The Reckless/Hannan/Carswell trio support an In/Out referendum. This is not the position of Fresh Start, which is drawing up renegotiation proposals likely to appear in the next Conservative manifesto in some form.
- Between this morning and this evening lies PMQs. I'd be surprised were Mr Cameron not to use the opportunity to try to shift Tory backbench opinion- though the Government will not be bound by the result
- Beware of assuming that signatures on an amendment translate into votes. Some of the 40 Conservative MPs who have signed the Reckless/Pritchard amendment won't support it. However, some Tory MPs who haven't signed it will vote for it.
- Conservative MPs will not want to troop through the lobbies with Mr Balls. Labour's about-turn is thus a high-risk Commons gambit. It may well persuade wavering Tory MPs to support the Rees-Mogg/Bone amendment - which the Government can live with - and thus help deliver a smaller Conservative revolt than would otherwise have been the case. But if the Government is defeated, the Shadow Chancellor's gambit will have come off.
So in summary:
- On the one hand, a EU budget freeze would mean even more taxpayers' money going to the EU, so David Cameron should aim for a cut in the budget - and use Britain's veto if one isn't agreed. This is the Reckless/Pritchard position.
- On the other hand, use of the veto if a cut isn't agreed might mean even more taxpayers' money going to the EU. So Mr Cameron should settle for a freeze and not use the veto. This is what the Rees-Mogg/Bone amendment appears to be getting at.
- Yet again, use of the veto if a cut isn't agreed might not mean even more taxpayers' money going to the EU. So the Prime Minister shouldn't settle for a freeze and should use the veto after all. This takes us back to the Reckless/Pritchard position...
...But whatever advice the J.Alfred Prufrocks of the Tory backbenches take when they vote this evening, the Conservative Party's direction of travel is unmistakable.
It is hard to know how many Tory MPs now believe we are Better Off Out, and how many want a big renegotiation. But my sense is that more of the latter now want Britain to head for the exit door if such a renegotiation isn't successful (which it probably wouldn't be).
This is the Liam Fox/David Davis position. It implies an In-Out referendum in the next Parliament if David Cameron wins a majority in 2015. The Prime Minister is slowly being hauled in that direction. At the least, his party expects a veto from him in the event of no EU budget freeze.
Such an event would be a staging-post on the Conservative journey towards an In-Out referendum. So therefore, in its way, is today's vote. It is about even more than the future of the EU budget.
10am Update: Douglas Carswell tweets that Chris Heaton-Harris, another Fresh Start luminary, will be voting for the Reckless amendment this evening. So Mr Heaton-Harris will be in one lobby and Mrs Leadsom will presumably be in the other. It will be interesting to see which one George Eustice, the third member of the Fresh Start trio, goes into.