Nine Lib Dems rebel as Osborne's welfare bill clears another hurdle

Charles Kennedy, Sarah Teather and seven others vote against bill capping benefit increases at 1 per cent for each of the next three years.

The coalition's Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill (artfully renamed by Andrew Rawnsley as "The Make Labour Look Like the Party for Skiving Fat Slobs bill"), which introduces a 1 per cent cap on benefit increases for each of the next three years, comfortably made its way past the Commons last night, with MPs voting by 305 votes to 246 to give the bill a third reading. 

When MPs first voted on the bill earlier this month there were six Lib Dem rebels. Four of the party's 57 MPs - Julian Huppert, John Leech, Sarah Teather, David Ward - voted not to give the bill a second reading, while Andrew George and Charles Kennedy formally abstained by voting in both lobbies. Last night this total increased to nine. Below, I've listed those who voted against the bill and, where applicable, have included how far up they appear on Labour's target list of 106 seats. The Conservatives intend to target 20 Lib Dem seats at the general election but have yet to release a full list. 

1. Andrew George (St Ives)

Majority: 1,719

2. Martin Horwood (Cheltenham)

Majority: 4,920

3. Julian Huppert (Cambridge)

Majority: 6,792

Labour target 103

4. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber)

Majority: 13,070

5. John Leech (Manchester Withington)

Majority: 1,894

Labour target 31

6. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute)

Majority: 3,431

Labour target 64

7. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

Majority: 4,078 

8. Sarah Teather (Brent Central)

Majority: 1,345

Labour target 23

9. Mark Williams (Ceredigion)

Majority: 8,324

The most notable moment in the debate came when Labour's shadow employment minister Stephen Timms was asked whether it was his party's policy that benefits should be uprated in line with inflation, rather than by 1 per cent (a real-terms cut). Timms replied: "Uprating should indeed be in line with inflation, as it always was in the past." He later added: "We reject the proposal to restrict the uprating of social security and tax credits to 1% in our view, as I have already said uprating should be in line with inflation and it should be assessed as it always has been at the end of the preceding year." 

Timms's words were significant because, as I noted yesterday, Labour's amendment to the bill simply called for the cancellation of the 1 per cent rise, rather than for benefits to rise in line with the Consumer Price Index as normal. The Tories leapt on his statement as proof that Labour was committed to inflationary rises in benefits for the next three years. The party's Tiggerish chairman Grant Shapps commented: "Labour have committed to pay for more generous benefit rises with more borrowing and more debt. That’s exactly how they got us into this mess in the first place. Labour haven’t learnt and would do it all over again."

But Labour has since argued that Timms's words only reflected the party's existing position of increasing benefits in line with inflation this year (2013-14) and did not amount to a commitment to do so in 2014-15 and 2015-16. As the BBC's James Lansdale notes, on 6 January Ed Balls told Sky News: "The normal thing is to index and the government would normally have indexed in line with inflation and to be honest, I think that would be fair." He added: "It's not responsible for me as a shadow chancellor to come here two and a half years ahead and tell you what we can do about taxes or spending or benefits."

So, in other words, nothing has changed. But expect the Tories to continue to challenge Labour to give a much clearer indication of how it would behave in 2015. 

Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy was one of nine Liberal Democrat MPs to vote against the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left