By Peter Hoskin
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Minutes before the result of tonight's EU budget vote was announced, Westminster — and Twitter, natch — was abuzz with all sorts of contradictory rumours. No.10 was saying that the rebels had won it; the rebels were suggesting that they'd just missed out. Who was playing whom?
But, in the end, the confusion may well have been due to the closeness of the result. The government was indeed defeated, but by only 13 votes. Here's how it broke down:
Ayes in favour of the Reckless amendment: 307
What does this change? In terms of the specific matter at hand, the EU Budget negotiations, it's hard to tell. The government says, for now, that it will continue to negotiate for a real-terms freeze when the Eurosummit convenes next month — although don't be suprised if ministers suggest more frequently, as David Cameron did in PMQs earlier, that what they really, really want is a cut, but that, sadly, is undeliverable, etc.
But tonight's vote could well have wider rammifications. Even though the number of Tory rebels looks to be lower than for last year's Tory rebellion — perhaps around the 50 mark — it is still far from ideal for David Cameron to have the word DEFEAT splattered across tomorrow's papers. Questions will be asked about his grip over his party. Questions will be asked about the new whipping operation under Sir George Young. Questions will be asked about the Tory Party and Europe.
But more signficant than all of that is what Mr Cameron actually manages to return with from Brussels. At the moment, it looks as though he'll struggle to secure even a freeze. But, as I suggested yesterday, an extended negotiating period could strengthen the power of any threatened veto, as Europe quivers at the prospect of no agreement being reached.
There's no point making predictions, though. There are countless participants in this grim comedy, from Tory backbenchers to the governments of Eastern Europe — and that means uncertainty all the way.
ConHome will have more on tonight's vote as it comes in.