Cameron set to win a cut in the EU budget - but there's a catch

Even if European leaders agree to a €34.4bn cut in the EU budget, the UK will almost certainly pay more.

David Cameron went into the EU budget negotiations insisting on "at worst a freeze, at best a cut" (Labour and rebel Tories had demanded that he go further and insist on a cut) and after a long night of talks, it looks as if he's secured the "best". For the first time in its history, the EU is set to agree to a cut in its next seven-year budget. Earlier this morning, EU president Herman Van Rompuy tabled proposals that would see the union's spending limit for 2014-20 reduced from €942.8bn to €908.4bn - a  €34.4bn cut and a saving of £400m-a-year for British taxpayers. 

If approved - EU leaders have just taken a two-hour break from the onerous negotiations - a cut would be a triumph for Cameron. He will have defied those who claimed that his promise of an in/out referendum on Britain's EU membership would leave him unable to achieve a successful outcome.

The catch, however, is that regardless of whether the EU agrees to a real-terms cut in its budget, the UK's net contribution will almost certainly increase. This is largely due to a reduction in the British rebate agreed by Tony Blair in 2005 to meet the cost of EU enlargement (a cause the UK had championed) but a cut in the EU budget will look less impressive to voters if it turns out that we'll still be paying more. Tory MP Mark Pritchard, one of those supported a real-terms cut when the Commons voted last October, tweeted this morning: "It will be a historic, but 'bitter-sweet' outcome, if the PM negotiates a real terms cut in the EU budget but sees the UK contribution rise".

In addition, the overall budget will still need to be approved by the EU parliament and German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, the president of the parliament, has been making sceptical noises this morning. He is threatening to veto the proposed deal on the grounds that it would create a structural deficit. "The [budget] in the form currently being proposed, however, would turn what is already a legally highly questionable trend into a structural deficit," he told EU leaders. 

Worst of all, while spending on the bloated Common Agricultural Policy (a slush fund for assorted land-owning dukes, earls and princes) will be €1bn higher than under the previous proposal, spending on transport, telecommunications and energy projects, all vital pro-growth areas, will be €11bn lower. 

Yet given how few expected him to be in a position to announce any kind of cut, Cameron will rightly feel that the summit has been a success for him. Having once refused to contemplate a reduction in spending, EU leaders now make Cameron-esque noises about the need for restraint at a time when EU member states are enduring austerity. The draft conclusion states: "As fiscal discipline is reinforced in Europe, it is essential that the future Multiannual Financial Framework [the seven-year budget] reflects the consolidation efforts being made by member states to bring deficit and debt onto a more sustainable path. The value of each euro spent must be carefully examined." Arch-eurosceptic Douglas Carswell has offered the PM "three hearty cheers" this morning and so will many others in his party. 

David Cameron arrives at the EU Headquarters on February 7, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.