The sound of division on Europe

George Osborne: "We'll only do a deal if it's good for Britain"

On the morning after the fright night before, the chancellor says the government will listen. Listen, that is, to the call from the House of Commons for a cut to the EU budget. Yet the deputy prime minister says the government's "offer" to Europe is a real-terms freeze - ie: an increase in line with prices.

Even that could be hard to deliver, we are told, given that every one of the EU's 27 governments must sign up to any new long-term budget deal. Currently, 17 nations want an increased budget because they are net beneficiaries.

In other words, the message from the government this morning is rather like that of an exasperated parent with an unruly teenager: "We know you're feeling upset but screaming and shouting won't make anything better, will it?"

The willingness of dozens of Tory backbenchers to defy their leader on the issue of Europe is not news - after all 81 did that a year ago on a call for an EU referendum. What made last night different though was the willingness of those rebels to fight on even when it was clear that it would produce defeat for the government and headlines about humiliation and disarray.

The key to that was the decision of Ed Miliband to take a leaf out of the John Smith playbook. In the early Major years the former Labour leader thought that his duty to eject a Tory government trumped the need to parade his pro-European credentials. Smith formed an alliance with Tory Eurosceptics over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. Miliband did the same last night on the EU budget.

Ministers hope that when/if it comes to a future binding Commons vote on any EU budget deal their MPs and Labour will face a very different choice - not between two rival non-binding proposals for the government's negotiating position but between tearing up a deal agreed by 27 nations or accepting that that deal is as as good as it gets.

They may prove to be right but David Cameron now finds himself struggling to bridge the gulf between what his party will tolerate and what he believes it is possible to negotiate in Europe - not least with the Lib Dems at his side.

The row about the EU budget is just the forerunner of future divisions on re-negotiating Britain's entire relationship with Europe and whether the Tories should promise a referendum on it.

This morning two Tory MPs debated on BBC Radio 4's Today programme whether this was - as Ed Miliband has claimed - a return to the weakness and divisions over Europe of the Major years.

In their argument about budgets and negotiating tactics and how Eurosceptic the country now is they forgot one simple point - voters were waking up once again to hear two Tories rowing about Europe after a news bulletin about a prime minister who had lost a Commons vote having failed to win the support of dozens of his own MPs.

Whether the government is listening to the Commons or not, the electorate is certainly listening to one thing - the sound of division.

Nick Robinson, Political editor Article written by Nick Robinson Nick Robinson Political editor

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