The Lib Dem rebels: who they are and what they want

Your guide to the four Lib Dem MPs planning to rebel against the increase in VAT.

Vince Cable may now claim that the Lib Dems only warned of the dangers of a VAT rise during the election in order to "score points" over the Conservatives, but there are others in his party who have always opposed this regressive move on principle.

One of them, Andrew George, has now tabled an amendment demanding an assessment of the impact the new 20 per cent rate will have on low-income groups. It has been signed by three others -- Bob Russell, Mark Williams and Roger Williams.

There is no evidence that Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy have joined the rebellion, though it wouldn't be surprising if the Gang of Four (as they will undoubtedly soon be known) had their tacit support.

Meanwhile, Russell, who has previously threatened to vote against the Budget in its entirety, has dismissed an Independent on Sunday report that the rebels have secretly agreed to co-operate with Labour MPs as "poppycock" and "Labour mischief-making".

He said: "There is not a conspiracy involving Simon Hughes or Charles Kennedy, this is about backbencher unease from members. If Labour think there is some yawning chasm they are going to be sorely disillusioned."

It remains to be seen whether the amendment will be put to a vote on Tuesday, but the rebellion is an important reflection of the wider unease felt by Lib Dem activists over the Budget.

The MPs have no obvious ideological agenda, but Russell has a record as a Lib Dem maverick. He previously rebelled against the party whip to vote against equalising the age of consent and the sexual equality act.

Russell's name and those of his fellow conspirators are certainly worth noting for the future.

Andrew George

Age: 51

Constituency: St Ives (elected 1997)

Majority: 1,719 (3.7 per cent)

Significant moments: One of the first Lib Dem frontbenchers to threaten to resign if Charles Kennedy did not stand down as leader. Later sacked by Kennedy's successor, Menzies Campbell.

Bob Russell

Age: 64

Constituency: Colchester (elected 1997)

Majority: 6,982 (15.1 per cent)

Significant moments: Rebelled against the party whip to vote against equalising the age of consent and against the sexual equality act.

Mark Williams

Age: 44

Constituency: Ceredigion (elected 2005)

Majority: 8,324 (21.8 per cent)

Significant moments: Dramatically increased his majority at the last election from 219 to 8,324.

Roger Williams

Age: 62

Constituency: Brecon and Radnorshire (elected 2001)

Majority: 3,905 (10.2 per cent)

Significant moments: Served as shadow Welsh secretary for the Lib Dems from 2007-2008.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.