Tory MPs I've been chatting to this afternoon have described their whips as variously as "panicking", "fretting", "pestering", or in "meltdown."
Tory whips have been instructed to swat a rebellion building up ahead of Wednesday's vote on the EU budget. Whips have been on the phone busily trying to get MPs to withdraw support for the backbench amendment or not sign it in the first place.
Tory MPs are being hauled back from campaigning in Corby to make sure there's a full turnout on Wednesday. Whips are saying, with unfortunate echoes of John Major, that a vote for the amendment to the government motion will "bind the prime minister's hands" in the negotiations next month in Brussels.
If you were unkind, and some Tory MPs were in that mood, you could say David Cameron fired the starting gun for this rebellion with his tough-talking rhetoric on the EU budget. His critics would (and do) say that he aggravated the situation by sliding from a commitment to a "freeze" of the overall EU budget to a call for a "real-terms freeze" (which would mean a rise of about 2 per cent). Mr Cameron's supporters say that's real progress, given the 7 per cent rise that the EU was originally looking for.
The Tory backbench amendment to the government's motion is expected to be called on Wednesday afternoon. It calls for "the government to strengthen its stance so that the next multi-annual financial framework (the EU budget) is reduced in real terms."
Labour and the Tories insist there's no back-channel communication going on, but Labour popped out with a new policy position in an article by Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander today (in The Times paywall), supporting a cut in the EU budget, which neatly matches the terms of the Tory backbenchers' amendment.
At the moment, there are 14 or so Tory signatures on the amendment but the organisers say they're confident they'll get that up to a number that threatens to defeat the government. Judging by the Tory whips' hyper-activity this afternoon, that's a threat they are taking seriously. A year ago, 81 EU Tory sceptics rose up against the government line on an in/out referendum.
In Berlin, Tony Blair has been trying to sound the trumpet for Europe. He's got another speech planned on the subject in the UK soon. Nick Clegg is giving a speech trying to plot a positive route for UK in the very near future too. I mentioned a few weeks ago how a senior statesmens' informal "friends of Europe" group was appearing and how Nick Clegg was worried about Britain lurching towards an accidental exit.
In his speech Tony Blair complains of short-term tactical manouevres over Europe by British political parties. He was probably thinking of the Tories when the speech was forwarded to newspapers last night, but perhaps thinking in part of his own party when he came to deliver it today, the Balls/Alexander line freshly minted and on the newstands.
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