Wednesday night in the House of Commons looked too much like a return to the dark days of the Major years for comfort. Goaded by a passionate dislike of the EU, more than 50 Tory rebels lined up to vote against their Government, aided and abetted by a hypocritical Labour opposition.
The flashpoint is the next European budget, which runs from 2014 to 2020 and is to be thrashed out at a summit in Brussels later this month. The Commission's starting point is for a ceiling of €826bn, a 5 per cent rise on current levels. David Cameron intends to push for a real-terms freeze, that is a budget that will increase in line with inflation only. The Eurosceptics and their Labour confederates say only a cut will do – and between them they defeated the Government by 307 to 294.
As regards the Prime Minister's negotiating position, the immediate impact is limited. The vote is a non-binding one, and Mr Cameron may proceed in Brussels as planned. But the political damage is real enough, adding to the growing sense of a leader struggling to control his party. The longer-term implications are more disquieting still. Although this week's rebellion is mere game-playing by comparison with the serial revolts over the Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s, the current Conservative parliamentary party is far more Eurosceptic than its predecessor. Now, the Tory benches are almost wholly opposed to Europe, the only real debate being one of degree. And the rebels' willingness to proceed, backed by an opposition they knew to be trying to embarrass Mr Cameron, gives an indication of how little any other considerations weigh. Such a dynamic would be troubling at any time; with Europe in crisis, it is even more so.
Labour's behaviour is not much more encouraging. The Tory leadership has had a trying few weeks, rocked by the Chief Whip's "plebgate" resignation and a growing fiasco over energy policy. With Labour's plan to paint their opponents as "out of touch" at full tilt, the EU budget vote was, apparently, too tempting to resist. Shame on them. For a pro-Europe party to enter the voting lobbies alongside Tory Eurosceptics who would have Britain pull out altogether is the height of cynicism.
So much for the politics. What of the substance? It is rare for this newspaper to support Mr Cameron on the subject of Europe. In this instance, however, his approach is the right one – now that he has replaced bullish talk of Britain's veto with a more emollient tone. There is a case for reviewing the EU's ever-growing budget; and deep domestic spending cuts are not an auspicious background against which to agree multi-billion pound transfers abroad (even ones that, indirectly, more than pay for themselves). But a freeze is all that we can realistically expect. Indeed, Mr Cameron faces no little trouble drumming up support even for that. Moreover, a bolshy British veto would cost us more, thanks to an automatic reversion to more expensive one-year budgets.
More important still is the larger picture of which the budget spat is a microcosm. The more that Eurosceptics dig their heels in, talk up the repatriation of powers and hint of referendums to come, the weaker our voice in shaping the Europe that will emerge from the euro crisis and determine much of Britain's economic and political future regardless of our formal place in it.
In such a context, Maastricht-style ructions in the House of Commons would be catastrophic. This week's rebellion was just a warm-up. The make-or-break moment will be the vote on whatever deal the Prime Minister brings back from Brussels, which will most likely take place next year. The auguries could hardly be less promising, or the consequences more profound.