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 three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.