A very modest Lib Dem rebellion on the benefits cap

Sarah Teather dodged a vote the first time round, now she has sided with Labour.

Sarah Teather, Liberal Democrat MP for Brent Central and children and families minister until she was sacked in the autumn reshuffle, was on the front page of the Observer last weekend decrying the effects of the government's benefits cap. She called it "immoral and divisive" and said she saw clear evidence while in government that the policy wouldn't save money while being sure to inflict social harm and trauma to some very poor, vulnerable families.

Teather is not the only Lib Dem to have strong feelings about the cap and its passage into law provoked a mini rebellion in the party ranks. As a minister, Teather was obliged to support government policy but found a way to be absent from the crucial votes. That pointed abstention provoked fury on the Tory side and triggered demands for her resignation.

As it happens, that wasn't quite the end of the cap's journey into law. As I noted in my column the other week, there was still a 'deferred division' due on a statutory instrument bringing in the last regulations required to implement the policy. This is an unglamorous parliamentary procedure - a tying up of loose ends - that allows MPs to signal their assent or dissent without a noisy debate in the floor of the chamber. It happened yesterday.

Having read about Teather's feelings on the cap, I was curious to see if she would put her vote where her mouth had been on the weekend and side with Labour. A quick look at today's Hansard, column 692, reporting the list of voting MPs confirms, that indeed she did. Not the noisiest, most flamboyant, well-advertised rebellion in Commons history. But a rebellion none the less.

Liberal Democrat MP and former children's minister Sarah Teather. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.