At this morning's Cabinet meeting, ministers discussed tomorrow's debate on the EU budget, which is shaping up to be a big row. MPs I have spoken to who have either signed or are considering putting their names to the amendment calling for a real-terms cut in the budget have found their whips to be in quite a flap about the issue. Even though it might be convenient for the Prime Minister to use a vote in parliament calling for a cut as a weapon at the budget summit itself, the party leadership is clearly sufficiently nervous to have pushed for a rival amendment from Jacob Rees-Mogg and Peter Bone. The amendment adds the following to the end of the full motion:
'…further regrets the substantial increase in the UK's net contribution to the EU in the previous financial perspective; reject proposals for EU financial transaction taxes, and calls on the Government to veto anything other than a cut or freeze in the seven year MFF.'
This is essentially the position that the Prime Minister is already taking as he heads into the negotiations: that anything more than an increase matching inflation will get the veto. So it could deflate the Reckless/Pritchard amendment a little, giving the more loyal backbenchers a chance to put their names to a tough-sounding line without making things difficult for the Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, this morning's Order Paper has 28 names down next to the real-terms cut amendment, and I know of at least two more MPs who have signed up this morning. While the Rees-Mogg/Bone amendment is something the whips are trying to use as a diversionary tactic, I note that Bone himself is also one of the MPs on the order paper supporting the calls for a real-terms cut.
One MP I spoke to who has signed the amendment this morning said: 'Unless we help the Prime Minister harden his position, we would be failing our constituents.' It's interesting that backbenchers view this as 'helpful' to the Prime Minister, while the whips are seeing the intervention as a cause to panic. And the 'failing our constituents' may remind readers of the language that was used just over a year ago by MPs preparing to rebel in the backbench motion on an EU referendum: the rebels are suggesting now that this vote may see a similar-sized revolt to the 81 last year. No wonder the whips are nervous: this vote is, after all, their first big test both since the reshuffle and since Sir George Young replaced Andrew Mitchell.
And as for a hardening in position, Number 10 was definitely on an expectations-management mission this morning with regards the budget summit itself. The Prime Minister's official spokesman said:
'It is going to be difficult to reach agreement: there are different positions around the table and there's no doubt that this is a challenging negotiation. Now we are going into that negotiation with good intentions. We want to try and reach a deal.'
But he stressed that as there is a year between the budget summit and the budget coming into play in 2014, there will be no immediate consequences of a failure to reach an agreement, thus setting us up to prepare for a veto moment from the Prime Minister.
UPDATE, 1.45pm: I now understand that as of this lunchtime there are 35 names on the amendment for a real-terms cut. But that's not all: those pushing that amendment are holding back what I am told are 'significant numbers' of MPs from tabling their support publicly in advance of the vote tomorrow. This looks like it is going to be even bigger than last year's Europe rebellion.