British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat in parliament on Wednesday after Conservatives rebelled over Europe, an issue that has divided his party for decades and helped bring down previous leaders.
Although the result carried no legal weight, the setback raised questions about Cameron’s authority after months of missteps by his coalition government and it revived painful memories of Conservative infighting over Europe.
Cameron wants the EU’s long-term budget to rise only in line with inflation, while opponents said it should be cut in real terms to reflect the bleak economic landscape at home and across Europe.
The rebels won the vote by 307 to 294 votes, a majority of 13, after they received support from the Labour Party, a generally pro-European group accused by Cameron of “rank opportunism.”
“This is a time for Brussels to listen to the British people and do what we are all doing, and that is cutting our cloth,” one of the revolt’s leaders, Conservative lawmaker Mark Pritchard, said.
Rebels said the vote — Cameron’s first significant defeat in parliament since taking power in 2010 — could strengthen his position at budget talks in Brussels next month because he will be able to say his hands are tied by the British parliament.
Other Conservatives said it would weaken his position.
Cameron wants Britain to remain an EU member, but to renegotiate its role within the bloc, focusing more on trade links and less on areas like regulation.
Addressing parliament before the vote, Cameron said he was prepared to use his veto to block an EU budget deal if he thought it was bad for Britain. France also threatened on Wednesday to use its veto if the proposals imply farm spending cuts.
“This government is taking the toughest line in these budget negotiations of any government since we joined the European Union,” Cameron said before the vote. “At best we would like it cut, at worst frozen, and I’m quite prepared to use the veto if we don’t get a deal that’s good for Britain.”
Accused of siding with the rebels to score cheap points against Cameron, Labour said it was right to ask Europe to cut its budget in real terms at a time of economic hardship.
“This is a humiliating defeat for David Cameron which shows how weak and out of touch he has become,” Labour finance spokesman Ed Balls said.
A day after Cameron’s humiliating defeat, Britain threatened to veto any deal on the EU budget that is not good for the British taxpayer.
“We want a cut in the EU budget,” Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told BBC Radio 4. “We are at the beginning of a negotiation. Let us see where that negotiation leads.”
The second most powerful man in the British government repeatedly refused to be drawn on whether he thought securing such a cut was possible or not.
“We will not accept a deal unless it is good for the British taxpayer. We will veto any deal that is not good for the British taxpayer,” Osborne said.
“No one should doubt David Cameron’s determination, my determination to deliver a deal that is good for the taxpayer and that puts an end to outrageous increases in European spending,” Osborne said.
Osborne talked past a question on whether the Conservative Party was out of control over Europe, but said Wednesday’s defeat in parliament meant the government had to listen to lawmakers.
“We will only put a deal to the House of Commons that we think the House of Commons will accept,” Osborne said. “If it comes to a vote ... the House of Commons will face a choice: You either accept the deal or you accept no deal. Now no deal doesn’t mean there is no spending in Europe; it means you go to these annual budgets in the European Union.”
Osborne, 41, said there had been a shift in the public mood against the EU in Britain.
Many Britons regard the EU as an incompetent and spendthrift bureaucracy. Britain’s ties with the 27-member bloc are likely to be a big theme in a national election due in 2015.
“Britain has become more Euroskeptic over my lifetime. I think people are outraged when they see money being wasted in Europe,” Osborne said.