Time for the Tories to make it clear: do they want real reform or just headlines?

(As published on Left Foot Forward)

As the government struggles to hit home with its arguments for the biggest cuts in living memory, David Cameron is looking for a diversion to relieve the run of bad headlines.

Cue an EU budget battle.

Today the prime minister is in Brussels for an EU summit – and he’s briefing anyone who’ll listen about his determination to stand up to EU excess.

Conservative politicians and commentators have been desperate to make political capital out of their call for a budget freeze, even if the facts don’t entirely support the story they want to be written.

So this week David Cameron stood up at PMQs to accuse Labour MEPs of backing a European Parliament call for a 5.9 per cent budget increase.

Tory aides must have been so busy writing the press release that they forgot to actually check the detail of the vote.

In fact Labour MEPs voted against the overall call for a budget increase and against a host of outrageous calls to increase spending. But it gets far more interesting than that.

For all their bluster Conservative MEPs failed to table a single amendment to the final budget package that would have resulted in a reduction in spending against 2010 levels. It was left to Labour members to propose cuts of more than €1bn to wasteful agricultural subsidies.

The best the Tories could manage was an amendment proposing a non-binding call for a budget freeze – a piece of political posturing that would, at best, have had no actual impact on the overall figures in the budget and, at worst, could have alienated the very people we need to win around to deliver a better value-for-money EU budget.

It is another example of the Tories’ impossible position on EU affairs. Cameron and Hague support the idea of Britain playing a leading role in the EU but allow themselves to be held hostage by backbenchers and an anti-EU press.

That’s how they ended up exiled from the mainstream in EU politics. The Tories’ decision to quit the same group as Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats means that Britain is still the only country to have no voice inside the biggest political group in the European Parliament.

It makes it much harder for those of us in favour of actually achieving proper reform (not just talking about it) to bring other European politicians with us.

It’s time for the Tories to make it clear whether their actions are actually about delivering reform, or just delivering headlines.

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