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Cameron suffers stinging defeat over EU budget cut

November 01, 2012 16:02 IST

British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a stinging parliamentary defeat over Europe after Conservative rebels joined the Labour opposition to demand a cut in the European Union budget.

The defeat on Wednesday night came after more than 50 rebels from the ruling party joined Labour Members of Parliament in supporting a demand for real-terms reductions in spending by the European Union. The government was defeated by 307 votes to 294, a majority of 13.

Commons sources estimated that 51 Tories voted against the government, with two more acting as tellers.

The vote was Cameron's second major Commons defeat over Europe and led to warnings that division in the Conservative Party over Europe could hamstring him as it did to Sir John Major during the 1990s.

The vote is not binding, but will put Cameron under intense pressure to take a harder line in talks on the EU budget at a summit in Brussels later in November.

Cameron had already promised to veto any significant rise in EU spending and 10 Downing Street on Wednesday night promised to "take note" of the vote in the coming budget negotiations.

Some Conservative MPs said the vote could strengthen Cameron's hand in the budget talks, but aides fear the result could create a significant political problem for Cameron.

Government sources insist that it is effectively impossible for Cameron to deliver a cut in EU spending because so many other members want an increase.

Yet any budget deal that falls short of the cuts demanded by the House of Commons could leave Cameron facing a backlash from MPs and the public.

Peter Bone, a Conservative rebel, said many MPs had defied the government because their constituents will not accept a rise in EU spending.

"Parliament spoke for the people," Bone said. "It was a very significant victory for the people."

Ed Balls, the Labour shadow chancellor, described the vote as "humiliating" for Cameron.

Senior Tories responded by accusing Labour of taking an "opportunistic and hypocritical" position on the budget because of the last government's record on EU spending.

EU leaders are trying to decide on a budget for 2014 to 2020. The European Commission and several EU countries are calling for an increase in spending. Cameron has said he wants EU spending to rise in line with inflation.

Conservative critics say that would still cost British taxpayers billions of pounds, arguing that at a time of domestic austerity, EU spending should also be cut.

Before the vote, the prime minister tried to placate his party by insisting that he too wanted a cut and promising a hard line at the summit.

"At best we would like it cut, at worst frozen, and I am quite prepared to use the veto if we don't get a deal which is good for Britain. But let's be clear -- it is in our interest to try to get a deal because a seven-year freeze would keep our bills down compared to annual budgets," he said.

But his hardened stance failed to persuade rebel Tory MPs not to join Labour in voting for a reduction in the budget in real terms, a defeat that leaves the PM's authority badly undermined.

The vote came at the end of an acrimonious three-hour debate in which Tory MPs openly and angrily clashed with each other on Europe and support for the prime minister.

A total of 53 Conservative MPs rebelled, with 51 voting against the government, plus two tellers -- the members who count the votes. Thirteen Conservative MPs -- including former defence secretary Liam Fox and 1922 Committee chairman Graham
Brady -- were absent. 

H S Rao
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