This week David Cameron suffered a humiliating parliamentary defeat in the Commons, with the unlikely partnership of Euro-sceptic Tory rebels and the Labour party manufacturing a rejection of an EU budget increase. This move by Ed Miliband, described by some as opportunistic, by others as shrewd, has achieved its aimed damage to Cameron, but not without damaging UK relations with Europe. With the next EU budget being decided at this month’s summit, this Commons defeat is unlikely to save Britain from contributing more to the coffers of Brussels and merely weakens our position at the negotiating table. With the divides in the Conservative party being clear, this recent development asks questions of Labours approach towards Europe and the next general election.
The UK is not alone in opposition to an inflation increase in the next EU budget, but is the strictest in demanding a freeze in the budget and is not making allies with its current approach. The use of Britain’s veto by Cameron in December may have been forced, but comments by the Chancellor George Osborne (“We will veto any deal not good for British tax-payers”) and parliament’s rejection of the budget can be taken as too aggressive by other nations, leading to deadlock. The EU has a reputation for marathon long meetings and summits, and with the heightened tensions of a eurozone still in crisis, it is likely that this month’s summit will not differ.
The unfortunate news for the UK is that if a budget cannot be agreed by all members, EU protocol implements the creation of an emergency budget which is majority voted and cannot be vetoed. Therefore, the decision by Labour to support the rebel Tories will not prevent Britain from paying more and has just the purpose of an attack on the PM (albeit a successful one). Cameron’s Government has been damaged by the Euro-sceptic Tories, but of more danger to them is the Conservative/Lib Dem divide and that’s what can be capitalised on.
The coalition government has never looked as rosy as the garden that Cameron and Clegg first paraded around two and half years ago and the divide between the coalition partners widens each day. In the coming months the major issues of conflict like the environment, Trident and the EU will further test this fractious relationship and provide Miliband with more chances to profit. These issues are all highly complicated and require clear leadership to be resolved, but the track record of the Labour leader does not suggest he is necessarily capable of this. Ed’s main approach to the coalitions woes so far has been to call for enquiry after enquiry; phone hacking, the West Coast mainline, GCSE English papers and the banking industry to name just a few. Similar to the criticism of the Romney/Ryan presidential ticket, Miliband has promised to improve the economy, jobs and welfare without delivering the substance to back it up.
Since the smokescreen success of the Olympics, it has been a rocky period for the Tories. Miliband’s actions this week have caused more problems for Dave, but by siding with the EU-sceptic Tories he is undertaking a risky strategy, uncharacteristic of a supposedly pro-EU Labour party. With voters abandoning Clegg and showing indifference to Cameron, Miliband has had the chance to take the initiative, but as yet has not portrayed himself as a leader in waiting and cannot dither much longer. Recent economic figures have shown that the UK has exited its recession, and if the economy continues to improve, this will provide Cameron with the momentum he will desire building towards the 2015 general election. Miliband often cites former Tory PM Benjamin Disraeli in his speeches, and ironically one of Disraeli’s famous quotes ponders leadership: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”
For the last two years Ed Miliband has too often been guilty of following and not leading, and to become PM he must make this change sooner rather than later.
By Joshua Barrett