David Cameron could barely contain himself when he addressed MPs on his victory in last week’s EU budget talks. ‘I didn’t quite get a thank you!’ he jeered at Ed Miliband once the Labour leader had finished his response. ‘But I will give him a thank you for the non-thank you.’ He also mocked Ed Balls for saying ‘hear, hear’ when the PM mentioned the need for spending constraint in the EU as so many of its member states struggled with austerity measures. Obligingly, Balls then cheered ‘hear, hear’ as often as he could, and continued to do so when his own leader started talking.
For Ed Miliband, this was an opportunity to try to steal back some of the limelight: after all, it was Labour’s backing that made the Pritchard/Reckless amendment calling for a cut rather than just a freeze so powerful. But the Prime Minister batted this off, pointing not only to the rebate, but also the party’s lack of a referendum policy. He paired the latter with Ed Miliband’s warning about the UK being isolated in Europe: ‘We were told that we were going to be marginalised, we were going to be isolated.’ he said. For Cameron, the outcome of this summit is more than just the money saved for Britain: it shows that the dire warnings about a renegotiation are unmerited.
But it was interesting that Cameron suggested to Bernard Jenkin that the EU Budget vote, which caused so much trouble at the time, had strengthened his hand in the negotiations. Here’s the exchange:
Jenkin: May I join the many voices of congratulation to my right honourable friend, may I say how much I am enjoying this statement. Not only because it is a good deal for the British taxpayer that he’s brought back, but it was a good day for the British parliament, for this House that voted for a cut and he delivered it
Cameron: I think my honourable friend is absolutely right, it is important that other European leaders recognise when we sit around that table, we don’t just listen to the European parliament, which has its legitimate views, but we listen to our own parliaments and that goes for the British Parliament, but also the German, Swedish, Dutch and Danish parliaments, all the parliaments of the net contributors have to be listened to.
There are two lessons from this. One is that Conservative whips might not feel the need to panic quite so much about backbench ‘rebellions’: the two major Tory revolts on Europe in this Parliament have both called for policies which the party then adopted on an EU referendum and a cut to the EU budget. By that same token, backbenchers will be encouraged to continue to use Commons debates and votes to push their to move closer to their own position on European matters in future.
Meanwhile, Cameron may be asking for a ‘thank you’ from Miliband today as he speaks about his achievement in Brussels, but his jubilation may fade within the next few weeks if leftist MEPs in the European Parliament get their way on vetoing the budget in a secret ballot.