‘I thought it would hurt more than it did’ one loyalist minister remarked after last night’s government defeat on the EU budget. The fact that the vote isn’t going to bring the government down or bind its hands is what is consoling Cameron loyalists. They are also pointing out that the Eurosceptic vote split with Jacob Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel and Andrea Leadsom staying on the government side this time.
But what should worry Number 10 about this rebellion is its flash mob nature. As Isabel pointed out last night, there wasn’t — unlike with the Lords revolt or the EU referendum vote — months of planning put into this one. Instead, it was a rebellion that flared up as soon as the amendment went down — gaining 24 supporters in the first 24 hours.
I suspect that this kind of thing is going to keep happening, at least, until Cameron sets out what his Europe policy actually is. So far we have a vague direction of travel and nothing else. We don’t know what Cameron would like a renegotiated British membership to consist of. This ambiguity both encourages Tory MPs to try and push the Prime Minister to a more sceptical place and to doubt reassurances that they’ll like the Europe policy when they see it.
Before Christmas, Cameron is meant to set out what he does want a renegotiation to look like. They’ll be many in Downing Street and the Foreign Office urging him not to show too much of his negotiating hand. But if he is to reassure his party, he is going to have to get into specifics. Without them, the revolts will keep on happening.
Update: Several people point out that Patel actually abstained.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.