Westcountry Lib Dem MP Andrew George has tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill* and has attracted the signatures of three colleagues, the Independent on Sunday has revealed. (Bob Russell, Mark Williams, Roger Williams). The amendment demands an assessment of the impact of the VAT rise on various social groups.
There is no doubt that some Lib Dem figures are hugely uncomfortable with the Budget – especially the VAT move. But how far would potential rebels go over the issue? It feels increasingly likely that the four may vote against the Budget; or at least the VAT element of it. The IoS story goes even further by suggesting they are already talking to Labour figures about covert co-operation.
If true, this would be of concern to the Tory leadership, which is already worried about Labour’s tactic of directing fire primarily towards the LIb Dems in an attempt to pick up their disillusioned left-leaning supporters. At a recent meeting of the 1922 Committee, George Osborne urged colleagues to – in the metaphorical words of one Tory MP – “hug a Lib Dem”. Osborne and others are acutely aware that splits within the smaller party could be toxic to the entire enterprise. Plunging opinion polls (two have put the Lib Dems at 16 per cent today) make this more likely.
But how seriously should we take the suggestion of co-operation with Labour? Are unhappy Lib Dem MPs really working covertly with the opposition party or have a handful merely chatted to each other in the corridors?
Bob Russell, the outspoken Lib Dem MP for Colchester (pictured), tells me the story is “poppycock” and “Labour mischief-making” and he hasn’t spoken to any Labour MPs about his signing the motion. “There is not a conspiracy involving Simon Hughes or Charles Kennedy, this is about backbencher unease from members, if Labour thinks there is some yawning chasm they are going to be sorely disillusioned,” he says.
It was true that he had spent 40 years opposing the “dastardly deeds” of former Tory administrations, Russell admitted.
But he said he despised Labour for its failure to build much more council housing, its “illegal” invasion of Iraq and the fact that the party had left the country’s finances in a mess and 3.9m children in poverty.
“The idea of some kind of collusion with Labour is….make-believe,” he said. “Labour are expecting me to have a go at the coalition, in the fullness of time that may come to pass, but at the moment I’m doing my best within the coalition.”
* Or to be technically precise, an amendment to a Budget resolution concerning VAT – as a reader points out