The EU Budget deal has moved the story on and taken the pressure off
If you have bad news to get out, then Friday evening is as good a time as any to do it. MPs have gone back to their constituencies, the public is paying less attention and it falls in that gap between the weekday and weekend media. The timing of the announcement that the government is to pay the Â£1.7bn demanded by the EU â€“ late, in instalments and with a rebate woven in, but pay it nonetheless â€“ is entirely unsurprising. The decision will still kick up an enormous fuss.
What seems clear is that the government has recognised the reality that it had no support for its position and that it had a choice of cutting as good a deal as it could get and setting itself unambiguously on the road to exit. A Francis Urquhart of a prime minister might have taken the latter option, played the patriotic card, split the coalition, caused an immediate election and sought to sweep the UKIP vote into the Tory fold. David Cameron is not a Francis Urquhart which, all things considered, is not a bad thing.
The consequence of keeping his European powder dry will, however, be a lot of criticism within the media, within his own party and from his opponents. Heâ€™ll be accused of caving in after marching his troops to the top of the hill, and of trying to spin his way out of an undoubted retreat. Some will say that it bodes ill for any hope of success in his planned renegotiation after the election and that European partners will take him less seriously having not gone to the line this time. I disagree â€“ it has shown them that he is willing and able to work with them and that as such they have an interest in being constructive too.
Even so, the payments will be grist to UKIPâ€™s mill and can only assist their campaign in Rochester and Strood at precisely the time that postal votes will be going out to voters.
What theyâ€™ve also done is switch the media narrative and the pressure from Ed Miliband to David Cameron and George Osborne. If Miliband was going to be forced out before the election, which some in Labour seemed serious about for the first time this week, that event would have to come from sustained pressure within his party and the wider Westminster world. That simply wonâ€™t happen if the focus is on the occupants of Downing Street.
Indeed, itâ€™s probably cleared the pressure on Miliband this side of Christmas. The EU row has several days value in it and even if it then subsides, a Tory by-election loss to UKIP would pile the pressure back on later in the month. By that point, the parliamentary season will be winding down and once we hit the new year there isnâ€™t time for any party to conduct a full leadership contest and then prepare a campaign and manifesto for the election.
I donâ€™t honestly think there was ever that much of a chance that Miliband was going to be forced out. People who have demonstrated the sort of ruthlessness that he did to get where his is, and the stubbornness he has to stay there, do not give up lightly, particularly when there is no clearly superior alternative that the party is rallying to. Even so, one accidental consequence of the budget furore is that itâ€™s reduced the odds of him going before the election from slim to negligible.