Can Cameron turn EU budget victory into by-election win?
Lib Dems thought they were smart going for Chris Huhne by-election on 28 Feb... they could be regretting it now
DAVID CAMERON has got the headlines this morning he could only have dreamed of a few days ago. With EU leaders looking poised to agree an historic budget cut, the Tories are hoping the Brussels breakthrough will float their boat at the Eastleigh by-election.
"Victory for David Cameron," say both the online Mail and Telegraph this morning, while even The Guardian has to concede that after a tortuous night of negotiations, "The summit's draft conclusions show the scale of the prime minister's success by stressing the need for restraint".
Cameron had his back to the wall in Brussels. He was under orders from his backbenchers to win a budget cut and and if he came back with a failure, his authority would have been shot to pieces – especially after 136 Tory MPs and ministers refused to back him in the gay marriage vote.
Now Downing Street strategists are hoping that success in Brussels will lift Tory support and create a winning tide in the 28 February by-election caused by the resignation of Chris Huhne, who faces a jail sentence for perverting the cause of justice.
The bitterness of Huhne’s relationship with his ex-wife Vicky Pryce - who told Southwark Crown Court yesterday that he not only pressured her into taking his speeding points, but persuaded her against her will to have an abortion - threatens to further damage Lib Dem hopes of saving Huhne’s seat.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg thought he’d caught the Tories on the hop by rushing the writ to call the by-election on 28 February. The Tories were worried about their candidate, Maria Hutchings, being too inexperienced while the Lib Dems needed no time to organise their local campaign because they hold every council seat in the constituency.
(That may be unfair on Mrs Hutchings, a former Labour supporter who has an autistic son. In 2005, she famously challenged then Prime Minister Tony Blair during a live TV debate over the proposed closure of a special school.)
It looked like Cameron was facing a nightmare defeat - even though the Lib Dems nationally are as unpopular as a dose of pox in the court of Charles 11.
Now Clegg’s decision to go for a snap election - rather than wait for the local elections in May - could backfire if the Tories can exploit victory in Brussels.
Make no mistake: it was Cameron who led the argument within Europe for austerity – against the wishes of socialist europhiles like Francois Hollande - and Cameron seems to have won.
There is one fly in the ointment. BBC political editor Nick Robinson - one of the sleepless hacks who had to stay up with the summiteers overnight - reported this morning that because of the oddities of EU budget rules, while the total budget may go down, Britain's contribution may go up.
According to Robinson, the Tories are already reminding us that this is because Labour conceded a reduction in Britain's rebate in the last big budget battle in Brussels. Ed Miliband may have trouble criticising Cameron's performance if it was all the fault of Tony Blair.
Cue the cheers on the Tory backbenches when MPs return to work after the weekend.