David Cameron now appears to have been outfoxed by his own backbench and the Labour party on the European budget. A Downing Street spokeswoman confirmed this morning that while the opposition and a group of rebellious MPs will campaign for a real-terms cut in the multi-annual budget, the Prime Minister remains committed to negotiating for a real-terms freeze.

The spokeswoman said:

‘His position is a real terms freeze: there has not been a real terms freeze in the multi-annual budget in recent years. That’s what we are committed to negotiating for.’

As I blogged earlier today, moves are afoot within the Conservative party to push for a real-terms cut, and there is now no backbench motion supporting the Prime Minister. Mark Pritchard and Mark Reckless have joined forces on one amendment to Wednesday’s motion calling for a real terms cut, although this morning Conservative MPs believed there were two motions which called for a real-terms freeze and a real terms cut respectively, and were briefly grouping themselves around one or the other when they were in fact the same thing. There is just one which amends the motion below:

That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 16844/11, No. 16845/11, No. 16846/11, No. 16847/11, No. 16848/11, No. 6708/12 and Addenda 1–3, No. 9007/12, No. 12356/12, and No. 13620/12, relating to the Commission’s proposal on the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), 2014–2020; agrees with the Government that at a time of ongoing economic fragility in Europe and tight constraints on domestic public spending, the Commission’s proposal for substantial spending increases compared with current spend is unacceptable, unrealistic, too large and incompatible with the tough decisions being taken in the UK and in countries across Europe to bring deficits under control and stimulate economic growth; notes that UK contributions to the European Union budget have also risen in recent years due to the 2005 decision to give away parts of the UK rebate; agrees that the next MFF must see significant improvements in the financial management of EU resources by the Commission and by Member States and significant improvements in the value for money of spend; further agrees that the proposed changes to the UK abatement and proposals for new taxes to fund the EU budget are completely unacceptable and an unwelcome distraction from the pressing issues that the EU needs to address; and calls on the Government to seek significant savings to the Commission’s seven year framework, as set out in the Prime Minister’s joint letter with France, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland of 18 December 2010, which stated that ‘payment appropriations should increase, at most, by no more than inflation over the next financial perspectives’.

The amendment removes the bold section (my emphasis) at the end, and adds:

‘So calls on the government to strengthen its stance so that the next MFF is reduced in real terms.’

So while Pritchard claims that he is not creating a rebellion on this issue, the position that he and Reckless are jointly taking goes further than David Cameron’s.

It may well be that what backbenchers want is simply not possible: as the spokeswoman said, there has not been a real-terms freeze in the budget in recent years. She referred to the fact that there are 27 member states, adding that the government has already made its own position clear on the matter. But if this was a hint that Cameron’s real desire is for a cut, his spokeswoman wouldn’t oblige by spelling that out, repeatedly saying ‘we have set out our position’.

This is a problem for Cameron. If his backbenchers suspect that he doesn’t actually want a real-terms cut in the budget rather than just being pragmatic and aiming for the more likely real-terms freeze, then they will not be kind to him. And it’s only a small step for Labour to support the Pritchard/Reckless amendment and make the Prime Minister appear weak. But an equally small but important step would be for Cameron to be unequivocal that his own personal desire is that the budget be cut.

UPDATE: I’ve just spoken again to Pritchard, who points out that ‘the worst of both worlds’ would be for the Labour party to end up in what would be an extraordinary position of ‘claiming fiscal responsibility and leadership’ over the EU budget.

Tags: David Cameron, EU Budget, European Union, UK politics