Not since John Major’s premiership in the 1990s has Europe formed such an important – and potentially destructive – context for a prime minister’s political capital.
David Cameron realises that if he cannot secure a cut in the EU budget, then he faces an unholy, but perfectly realistic, alliance of Labour and Tory rebels ready to vote down any Brussels deal.
With this in mind, he was clearly playing hardball as yesterday’s summit got under way, making it clear there would be no deal if his demands were not met.
“Frankly, the EU should not be immune from the sorts of pressures that we’ve had to reduce spending,” he said.
Usefully, there is at least a glimmer of hope that a deal can be reached that would keep both Labour and, more to the point, Mr Cameron’s back-benchers happy.
A proposal last November from European Council President Herman Van Rompuy suggested the magic figure of €642 million on payments (not “commitments”) could be achieved, allowing the PM to say he has got a cut in the total.
European summits, however, are never that straightforward, although it appears the Prime Minister has at least a sympathetic ear from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.
But context is crucial. This is Mr Cameron’s first Brussels meeting since his Bloomberg Speech pledged an in/out referendum on the UK’s EU membership by the end of 2017. He will be keen not to be seen as a wrecker, although as ever he has to balance that with the more destructive instincts of a sizeable minority of his parliamentary party, now additionally unhappy over gay marriage.
It is possible Mr Cameron’s speech bought him breathing space between now and the 2015 general election. Nigel Farage’s decision not to contest the Eastleigh by-election was perhaps the first sign the political dynamic has shifted.
Mr Cameron cut his political teeth as a special adviser in the ill-fated 1992-97 Tory government. He has no desire to become a prisoner of both Europe and his party in the manner of John Major.