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.

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide