The opening exchanges of the Commons debate on the EU budget were, on the whole, rather good for the Prime Minister. They involved Greg Clark making a concerted attack on Labour’s ‘opportunist’ decision to call for a real-terms cut and to support Mark Reckless’ amendment calling for just that. Without irony, Chris Leslie then told the Chamber that Clark was being ‘partisan’ in his speech.
This put Clark and the backbenchers sitting behind him on the defensive. The debate became about Labour rather than the government’s own stance on the issue. Loyal MPs including Nadhim Zahawi pressed Leslie on whether he himself would back a veto at the budget summit if European leaders failed to agree a freeze or a cut. Clark asked him directly whether he would do so. Leslie replied:
‘We have three weeks of negotiations…’
Tory MPs loved this, and united in jeering. Zahawi was particularly excited, roaring, rocking back and forth, and slapping his thighs.
The debate has now moved on to the backbench: Mark Reckless and his team of rebels have a tough task on their hands to turn the thoughts of wavering MPs back to the budget itself and away from fury at the extraordinary chutzpah of the Labour party in trying to use this opportunity to appear fiscally responsible.