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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder