Cameron's authority dented by Commons defeat on EU budget
British prime minister's authority dented by defeat in vote over EU budget; deputy says MPs' quest to cut spending has 'absolutely no hope'
British Prime Minister David Cameron was battling to reclaim his authority yesterday after rebels in his Conservative party delivered his first major parliamentary defeat by defying him over the EU budget.
Lawmakers passed a motion late on Wednesday urging Cameron to insist on a real-terms cut in the European Union's €1 trillion (HK$10 trillion) 2014-2020 budget at a summit in Brussels next month.
While the vote is not binding, it is the most significant defeat for the Conservative-led coalition since it came to power in 2010.
Cameron had attempted to stave off a rebellion by promising to veto any above-inflation increase of the EU budget, which has become increasingly contentious as austerity measures bite across the continent.
He insists that a seven-year EU budget freeze in real terms is the best Britain can realistically expect next month, as most of the bloc's 27 member states support a budget increase.
But in a humiliating blow to his authority, 53 Conservative lawmakers defied the prime minister and voted for a budget cut.
After a fiery debate in the House of Commons, the vote was passed by 307 votes to 294, to loud cheers from the rebels. The Daily Telegraph newspaper described the defeat as a "Halloween horror" for Cameron, while the i newspaper summed the situation up as "Nightmare on Downing Street".
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Conservatives' junior coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, said there was "absolutely no hope" of a real-terms cut in EU spending.
"The coalition government's position remains the same - we will not accept an increase, above inflation, to the EU budget," he was due to say in a speech at the Chatham House think-tank.
"That is the toughest position of any European country," the draft speech added.
Clegg, like Cameron, warns that if a seven-year deal is not struck next month, the EU will have to revert to annual budgets, which they say would be more costly for Britain.
"The prime minister and I may have our differences on Europe, but on this we are absolutely united," said Clegg.
But ministers face a battle to get any EU budget deal approved by parliament.
Mark Reckless, a leading Conservative rebel, said Cameron could not afford to return from Brussels with anything less than a real-terms budget cut.
"If the government comes with anything except a cut in the EU budget then they are not going to be able to get that through parliament," he said.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, wants a budget of 1.03 trillion euros for 2014-2020, up 5 per cent on 2007-2013. But seven major contributor states have balked at the rise at a time when they are having to cut spending at home.
Germany and France have joined Britain in insisting the EU cannot expect to get more when national governments have to make do with less, urging cuts of at least €100 billion.
Wednesday's parliamentary revolt puts renewed pressure on Cameron after months of blunders and U-turns by the coalition and whisperings of a possible leadership challenge.
He is not the first Conservative premier to be haunted by Europe, an issue that has bitterly divided the party for decades.
Infighting over the bloc plagued the leadership of Britain's last Conservative prime minister, John Major, and was central to the downfall of Major's predecessor Margaret Thatcher.