Aside from his visible fury at the EU landing him with a bill for an extra £1.7bn in membership contributions, the most notable thing about David Cameron’s press conference in Brussels was his admission of a communication breakdown inside the government. While Cameron only learned of the budgetary demand yesterday, he confirmed that the Treasury knew of it several days earlier:
The first that I saw of it was yesterday, Thursday, and my instant reaction was to look at the other countries that are being treated in this way and to form an alliance with them and put a stop to this European Council so it could be properly discussed and an emergency meeting of finance ministers could be established.
Yes, the Treasury had this information a little bit earlier but I don’t seek to single people out and say ‘Why didn’t you tell me this?’ or ‘Why didn’t you tell me that?’.
When this information comes in the first thing they do is try to check it and sort it.
I think, frankly, it is a bit of a red herring. You can all do ‘Who knew what whens’ and all the rest of it but actually, frankly, you don’t need a Cluedo set to know that someone has been clubbed with the lead piping in the library.
George Osborne revealed on Sky News earlier that he was “told on Tuesday”, while Danny Alexander said he was informed of it “over the past couple of days”. “It’s something that’s only formally been handed over in that period.” One wonders if Cameron is as content with his ministers keeping him in the dark as his public comments suggest.
While the timing of the demand and the order for payment by 1 December has come as a surprise, the request itself should not have done. The Treasury knew months ago that the British economy had been reclassified as around £10bn larger than previously thought (owing to the inclusion of illegal activities such as prostitution and drug dealing) and that a higher EU membership fee would result.
And for all Cameron’s protestations, the government will surely pay up (if likely later than 1 December). The demand is entirely consistent with the principle that member states should contribute according to ability to pay. The complaint from the Tories that the UK is being “punished for success” is no more acceptable than a individual complaining that they are being forced to pay more tax when their income rises.