ON NEWSNIGHT Greg Clark wore the taut, rabbit-caught-in-headlights expression Tory ministers are forced to adopt whenever questions of the European Union come up.
I felt rather sorry for him.
I remember similar discomfort on the faces of ministers when I was a political correspondent covering the Maastricht debates nearly 20 years ago and they were still as frozen when I was my newspaper's European correspondent in Brussels during the mad cow disease crisis a few years later.
It is the look that says: "I know no one believes a word that I'm saying, but this is my script."
The Government's position is that it will go to the EU leaders' summit in Brussels on November 22, committed to agreeing only to a rise in the European budget in line with inflation (currently two per cent) over the next seven years, instead of the five per cent the European Commission and some of the Southern and Eastern European member states want.
But last Wednesday's Commons vote undermined that plan, when the Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers were joined cynically by Labour, calling for the Government to insist on a real terms cut.
David Cameron is therefore neatly caught both ways. If he agrees to an EU compromise he will effectively be shot down by the Eurosceptics (who don't like him much anyway and don't seem too bothered whether the coalition survives or not).
And, if he vetoes an agreement that the other 26 member states want, his chances of getting Britain's way in re-negotiations will recede to zero.
The other EU members, frankly, no longer care much whether Britain stays or goes.
The immediate outcome will likely be that no seven-year budget will be agreed, which means there will be a new budget annually, rising by inflation each year, so we are likely to end up paying more anyway. The Eurosceptics know this and it suits their long-term aim of getting us out of Europe.
Will they also mind that this increases the likelihood of the break-up of the United Kingdom? Scotland and Wales like the EU, have benefited from it and probably will want to stay in.
It is far from certain, if we leave, that an advantageous EU trade deal would be available – the parting will be bitter and protracted.
You can tell I am a Europhile (there's not many of us left round here) but here's an honest suggestion: let's have that in/out referendum as soon as possible.
It will focus our minds – and stop any future prime ministers and understrappers like Greg from having to walk naked, with nothing to offer, into any more EU conference chambers.
Stephen Bates was on the Telegraph and Guardian political staff and was the latter's European affairs editor for nearly five years.