If the European Commission had come to Britain demanding another £90 million because this country’s economy had performed better than expected, it would have been a political headache for David Cameron. The money would have been handed over and Ukip would have slapped it on to its election leaflets. But the Commission’s demand for £1.7 billion extra from Britain is so outrageous that it provides Cameron with a political opportunity. He can refuse to pay and hold up all other European business until the demand is dropped, rallying the country to his side as Margaret Thatcher did over the British rebate. One Cabinet Minister says excitedly of the row with the Commission, ‘This provides us with an opportunity to tell them where to get off’.
In truth, Cameron doesn’t have any other option but to defy Brussels. I argue in the Mail on Sunday that if he endorsed this cheque, he would be signing away his prospects of re-election. It would give Ukip a huge boost and tip his own party into despair. As one Cabinet Minister warns handing over any extra money to Brussels would ‘demonstrate impotence’.
What’s essential now is that Cameron leans into this fight. One of those who will advise him on what to do next tells me that Cameron must ‘channel the spirit of Margaret’, holding up all other European business—as she did over the British rebate—until this demand is dropped.
If Cameron can succeed in this fight, it would demonstrate that he is a tough enough negotiator to get the deal that Britain needs in the renegotiation—and that would be a fillip to his chances of re-election.