It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. The Liberal Democrats never win Commons votes. Opposition day motions always fail. Those are the Parliamentary conventions*.
But Gordon Brown’s government was defeated by 267 to 246 votes this afternoon over the right of ageing Gurkhas to stay in the UK.
Not only does the result erode Mr Brown’s authority even further. It also leaves Labour on the wrong side of the debate – given the esteem in which Gurkhas are held in this country. Apparently the MoD has been touting the figure of £1.4bn a year as the possible cost of accommodating all Gurkhas and their families (100,000 in total).
Martin Salter, the Labour MP who has led the fight for the soldiers, says this is based on all of them ending up on the dole and claiming housing benefit. That makes it “nonsense”, he says.
The government is meanwhile claiming that the Tories have erroneously promised to give asylum to any former British Army soldier from anywhere in the world. In practice I’m not sure that David Cameron has done so – despite saying he would introduce a new immigration category for former military personnel.
Labour whips must be feeling so, so sore right now. Not least because there is another high-wire vote tomorrow over MPs expenses, which could also go the wrong way for Mr Brown and his half-baked proposals.
The biggest embarrassment is that today’s vote could have been avoided. The Tories pulled out the stops to make sure most of their MPs were there; including front-benchers. Labour apparently did not. There may also have been a tactical trap which lured Labour into thinking that the Tories and Lib Dems would not vote together on the same amendment.
Furthermore, the compromise from Jacqui Smith, home secretary, was not sent out until after 3pm, at which point many Labour MPs were far from their computers and did not see it. That meant 28 voting against the government and 70-ish abstaining. The result: a major setback for Brown.
Graham Stringer, a Labour backbencher, tells me he voted with the government because Smith answered “85 to 90 per cent” of his concerns. The email simply came too late to stop the rebellion’s momentum. “If it had come 48 hours earlier, this wouldn’t have happened ,” he says.
For context, this is only the sixth defeat of New Labour:
The others were:
- two votes on a terrorism bill in November 2005 (over detention of terror suspects for 90 days and 28 days respectively)
- two defeats over a religious hatred bill in 2006
- a vote on extradition (over the NatWest Three)