LONDON, Nov 1 – British Prime Minister David Cameron was battling to reclaim authority on Thursday, after rebels in his Conservative party delivered his first major parliamentary defeat by defying him over the EU budget.
Lawmakers passed a motion late Wednesday urging Cameron to insist on a real-terms cut in the European Union’s trillion-euro 2014-2020 budget at a summit in Brussels next month.
While the vote is not binding, it is the most significant defeat for the Conservative-led coalition since it came to power in 2010.
Cameron had attempted to stave off a rebellion by promising to veto any above-inflation increase of the EU budget, which has become increasingly contentious as austerity measures bite across the continent.
He insists that a seven-year EU budget freeze in real terms is the best Britain can realistically expect next month, as most of the bloc’s 27 member states support a budget increase.
But in a humiliating blow to his authority, 53 Conservative lawmakers defied the prime minister and voted for a budget cut.
After heated debate in the House of Commons, the vote passed by 307 votes to 294, to loud cheers from the rebels.
The Telegraph newspaper described the defeat as a “Halloween horror” for Cameron, while the i newspaper summed the situation up as: “Nightmare on Downing Street”.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Conservatives’ junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, said there was “absolutely no hope” of a real-terms cut in EU spending.
“The coalition government’s position remains the same — we will not accept an increase, above inflation, to the EU budget,” he was due to say in a speech at the Chatham House think-tank on Thursday.
“That is the toughest position of any European country,” the draft speech added.
Clegg, like Cameron, warns that if a seven-year deal is not struck next month the EU will have to revert to annual budgets, which they say would be more costly for Britain.
“The Prime Minister and I may have our differences on Europe, but on this we are absolutely united,” said Clegg, a former Member of the European Parliament whose centrist party is more pro-EU than the Conservatives.
But ministers face a battle to get any EU budget deal approved by parliament. Mark Reckless, a leading Conservative rebel, said Cameron could not afford to return from Brussels with anything less than a real-terms budget cut.