Fright night for the government?


A steady trickle of Tory backbenchers are adding their names to the backbench amendment calling for a real-terms cut in the EU's Multiannual Financial Framework for 2014-2020…or budget envelope to you and me.

But for the rebellion to threaten the government's majority, it has to pass the Andrea Leadsom test - in other words, it has to attract most of the pragmatic eurosceptic MPs of the Fresh Start group, which she leads.

A bid to hold a referendum on Britain's relationship with Europe failed in the House of Commons, but prompted rebellious MPs to vote against the government

And I'm far from sure it will, despite a smart unofficial whipping operation led by the eurosceptic backbencher, Mark Reckless.

Pretty well all Conservative backbenchers, even the few with relatively pro-EU views, believe the EU's call for increased spending is simply potty and completely unjustifiable. But they don't think a British government can single-handedly stop the increase, however much UK ministers stamp their feet.

They think the amendment may be good domestic and internal party politics but is utterly detached from the reality of EU negotiations. Others don't like the idea of voting with Labour, whose recent enthusiasm for cutting the EU budget is regarded on the Conservative benches as rank opportunism. Still others don't want to "cut the legs from under the PM".

If this is to be a "perfect storm" issue, which allows a critical mass of Tory eurosceptics to vote with Labour, then the government has problems. With a number of seats currently vacant, and Sinn Fein discounted, the notional government majority is 85. So, if 43 Tories defy their whips, the government will lose. But only if all the non-Coalition MPs vote with Labour and the rebels. And it is not entirely clear that they will.

I don't know how enthusiastic the smaller parties will be and, crucially, I don't know how hard Labour will whip their troops. They may be quite content to see the headlines about Tory splits - or they may see if they can give the government whips a fright.

And the whips seem to be taking no chances. Strong pressure is being brought to bear on likely rebels, and summonses to meet the chief whip and the PM are being issued. Meanwhile, ministers are cancelling engagements to be present for the vote, and MPs who've been given permission to be absent have been recalled. There's even some talk that the government will declare the vote to be an issue of confidence - which would be quite an escalation.

So how should the result, tomorrow, be judged?

An outright government defeat would be a huge problem for David Cameron, leaving him precious little room for manoeuvre in euro-negotiations - and facing defeat if he fails to deliver a budget cut, and has to try to persuade the Commons to authorise an above-inflation budget settlement.

This result would imply about 60 Tories voting against their whip, and a dangerous loss of confidence in the PM among his troops. This would still be a smaller rebellion than the one over the European Referendum, last October, when 81 Tories defied the whip - almost no-one expects a repeat of that. But it would also be rebellion on a much more substantive issue, in the knowledge that the government would be defeated.

A near-miss, with about 40 rebels would mean the government whips face a permanent challenge, with the potential for real embarrassment over future budget votes. Mopping up efforts, to win back some rebels and marginalise the rest, would continue for quite a while.

A rebellion limited to about 30 Tory backbenchers would be a huge coup for the whips. Compared to the 81 who voted for that EU referendum, it would represent a reassertion of government control and the remaining rebels could be dismissed as a rump of usual suspects, isolated head-bangers and perpetual malcontents. It would deliver a body blow to the credibility of the backbench eurosceptics.

The margins between these results are quite small - handfuls of MPs wavering from one column to another could make all the difference to the way the outcome is perceived. And whatever the result, the ramifications will be more than symbolic.

* And meanwhile in the Lords, an interesting coalition (note the small c) of peers is gathering behind an amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill (see earlier post). A Labour Peer, Lord Hart, has put down an amendment to postpone the next review of constituency boundaries - and has won support from crossbench peers, Plaid Cymru's Lord Wigley and the Lib Dem Lord Rennard. It's unlikely to be put to a vote at committee stage, but something is brewing.

Mark D'Arcy Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

Week ahead

A certain amount of fag-end legislating, next week, as MPs and peers finish off several bills.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Heath misled over Europe.Fancy footwork will not work. Cameron has a choice to look after the UK or the EU establishment. lf times are tough enough to cut benefits and tax credits for UK children there is no justification for the EU gravy train. Well done to those of all parties who put politics aside and spelt it out to Cameron.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    29.Some Lingering Fog - "The Conservative rebels should do the decent thing, cross the floor and join UKIP."

    Not such a bad idea for once mate - it'd bring down this shabby excuse for a Govt in double quick time! And without giving UKIP anything like enough clout to form the next Govt, ergo we'd have an election at which we'd see how right/left wing the people really are!

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    It's interesting how everyone who has commented on MPs' role as representatives of their constituents rather than as lobby-fodder for their party has been voted down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    The Conservative rebels should do the decent thing, cross the floor and join UKIP.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.


    If you think that means anything then you have to concede that what a party's previous PMs have done applies equally to all parties....

    ....remind me again, which PMs signed us up to the Euro project in the first place? Which PM made a mess of the ERM...???

    And for good measure which Chancellor stopped the then PM making us join the Euro...???


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