The House of Commons is in a febrile, nervy mood this afternoon. No-one is quite happy with anyone else. David Cameron raised a cheer when he told MPs that he will not pay the €2bn bill apparently sprung on him by the European Commission, but he had very little to say when pressed by Labour on how this surprise was quite so surprising given Treasury ministers were mentioning it in letters months ago. Ken Clarke made backbenchers glower and opposition MPs howl with glee when he told the Chamber he sympathised with the Prime Minister for being surprised by something everyone in the Foreign Office and Treasury had known about for months. Just to endear himself to the members around him, Clarke also defended the European Arrest Warrant. He may have helped Cameron by galvanising his Eurosceptic colleagues against him.
The Labour attack line is that while the Commission has, in Ed Miliband’s words, been ‘cack-handed’, the government has made even more of a mess of things. The Tory retort is ‘well, would you pay it?’ Cameron says he will not pay the bill on 1 Dec and ‘we are not paying a sum anything like that’. Tory MPs so far seem happy with this defiance, but say privately that the confusion in government and the demand from the Commission are deeply unhelpful to their fight against Ukip, particularly in the looming Rochester by-election. Cameron may have garnered the support of Peter Bone and like-minded colleagues in the Chamber today, but the party is still holding its breath until Rochester. It seems to be increasingly nervous about that result though. Sir Edward Leigh hinted at further unrest when he told the Commons that loud protestations by British Prime Ministers often ended up in miserable compromises. If Cameron says he won’t pay a bill of this scale, he’ll have to demonstrate to his party that the eventual compromise honours that pledge.