The FINANCIAL -- British Prime Minister
David Cameron heads to Brussels this week for a dramatic showdown over
the European Union budget that has major implications for his political
fate at home.
Cameron's promise to veto anything less than a freeze in the budget has left him treading a tightrope between an increasingly eurosceptic Britain and his angry counterparts in Europe.
The Conservative leader will gain badly needed domestic political capital ahead of elections in 2015 if he takes a stand like his predecessor Margaret "Iron Lady" Thatcher did in the 1980s.
Conservative rebels voted with the Labour opposition last month to inflict a humiliating defeat on Cameron in a non-binding parliamentary vote calling for him to insist on a cut in the budget.
But he risks fatally weakening Britain's influence in the EU -- his country's biggest trading partner -- if he blocks a deal on the trillion-euro budget as he has threatened.
"He is quite a weak PM because to some extent he is the prisoner of the most eurosceptic members of his party," Philip Whyte of the pro-EU think tank Centre for European Reform told AFP.
"He wanted Europe to be a non-issue. Now, the Conservative party is an overwhelmingly eurosceptic party."
The British premier has shuttled around European capitals in recent weeks trying to find allies, but has so far found few supporters for his austerity-driven stance.
With his EU counterparts rapidly tiring of Britain's demands for special treatment, there were signs on Monday that Cameron was striking a less strident tone.
"The prime minister believes that we can work through these details to get the right deal," his spokeswoman said after Cameron spoke by phone to the leaders of France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden at the weekend.
But Cameron will find it hard to please everyone in Britain, where he faces battles on several fronts.
The British electorate increasingly favours a full exit from the EU with a poll for the Observer newspaper on Sunday finding that 56 of those surveyed would vote to leave the bloc given the chance.
Many in Briton -- a net contributor to the EU -- resent what they regard as meddling in their business by Brussels while it takes their money.
Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU, then let the public vote on the deal, and is expected to announce a referendum in a speech some time before Christmas.
But Labour leader Ed Miliband warned in a speech on Monday that under Cameron Britain was in danger of "sleepwalking" into an exit from the EU that would wreck the economy.
He said Cameron should be concentrating on building alliances to agree cost-cutting reforms and ensure Britain did not lose out when eurozone countries deepen their ties. As EUbusiness announced, Europe has also shaken the Conservatives' coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats, who are pro-Europe.
The real danger to his position, however, comes from the increasingly vocal right-wing of the Conservative party, the so-called eurosceptics that former premier John Major dubbed the "bastards".
Cameron will be all too aware following last month's parliamentary defeat that it was divisions over Europe that toppled Thatcher, then undermined Major throughout his premiership.
Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson did nothing to quell talk of a possible leadership challenge when he urged Cameron to emulate Thatcher, still viewed as a heroine by the Tory right.
"It is time for David Cameron to put on that pineapple-coloured wig and powder blue suit, whirl his handbag round his head and bring it crashing to the table with the words no, non, nein," he wrote in the Daily Telegraph on Monday.
David Davis, who was Cameron's main rival for the leadership when he took over in 2005, added fuel to the fire at the weekend by saying of the prime minister's expected referendum announcement: "Nobody believes it."