After David Cameron suffered his first major Commons defeat over the EU budget last night, it was the submarine Chancellor who rose to hold the line on the Today programme this morning. George Osborne attempted to reassure Tory MPs by stating that he, like Cameron, wanted to see "a cut in the EU budget" and that the government was only at "the beginning of negotiations".
Unlike Nick Clegg, who will say in a speech later today that there is "absolutely no hope" of achieving a real-terms cut in the budget, Osborne refused to rule out the possibility of success (although he, like Clegg, knows that there is no chance of such an agreement). "Let's see what we bring home if we think there's a good deal," he said. He emphasised that Cameron's pledge to veto any above-inflation rise in the budget was a "tougher position" than any previous prime minister had adopted.
The most intriguing part of the interview came when Osborne was asked about Labour's decision to vote with the Tory rebels in favour of a real-terms cut. Rather than comparing the party's behaviour to that of John Smith over the Maastricht Treaty (as presenter Justin Webb invited him to do), Osborne said Labour's "opportunistic position" (the party supported an above-inflation increase in the EU budget in 2005) was reminiscent of the approach adopted by the Tories during the "early part" of the party's "period in opposition".
The Conservative leader at that time was, of course, one William Hague. One wonders how the Foreign Secretary feels about Osborne dismissing his leadership as "unprincipled". But it was an ingenious line of attack because it allowed the Chancellor to argue that Labour, like Hague's Tories, was not a credible "alternative government". The problem for the Conservatives, however, is that voters are much more likely to notice Cameron's refusal to call for a cut in the EU budget (most will view an inflation-linked "freeze" as a "rise") than they are Labour's dubious politicking.