Euro-rows could lead to unusual alliances

After the great euro-referendum rebellion of 2011, I pointed out that the government does not have a guaranteed majority on European issues, if Labour can find a way to make common cause with the Conservative backbench euro-rebels.

That could be put to the test on Wednesday. MPs are due to debate a motion dismissing the European Commission's call for a substantial increase in its long term budget as "entirely unacceptable."

The government line was that, "at most," the budget ("Multiannual Financial Framework" in eurospeak) should increase in line with inflation. But now Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander have weighed in with a call for a real-terms cut in the EU budget, the scene is set for a vote on a subject where it would be possible for Conservative euro-rebels to line up with Labour. "Possible," being the operative word. Even the most rampant Tory euro rebel will have some qualms about marching through the lobbies alongside Mr Balls (who has a reputation as a demonic political tactician among Conservative MPs) but in the right circumstances, they might just do it.

And the right circumstances might mean Labour supporting a rebel Tory amendment calling for that real-terms budget cut, rather than the other way round…. Just such an amendment is already circulating, calling on the government to "strengthen its stance, so that the MMF is reduced in real terms." It is signed by Mark Reckless, Zac Goldsmith, John Redwood, Bill Cash and Mark Pritchard - all backbenchers with a solid eurosceptic voting record, and also by Sarah Wollaston, the West Country GP best known for her criticism of the original version of the Government's NHS reorganisation.

Her name is an important addition to the list, because she is not among the Usual Suspects, which helps to attract those outside the core-eurosceptic ranks and demonstrates a breadth of support which would encourage Mr Speaker to select the amendment for debate. My guess is that, over the next few days, huge efforts will be made to attract more signatories, from across the House, to ensure the amendment is called.

So what if this amendment, or something like it, is voted through? There is a limit to how far Parliament can mandate the negotiating position of the government in the EU budget talks, but primary legislation - a full-dress bill, not some low profile statutory instrument - will be needed to allow Britain to pay up. And if the government can't get its own position through the House on Wednesday, it will face serious trouble getting a bill through.

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