Last Wednesday (1 February), Liberal Democrat MPs were involved in ten separate backbench rebellions: four minor ones on mayoral referendums, and six more significant ones on the Lords amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill.
Speculation was rife in the run-up to the voting that Nick Clegg would suffer a bloody nose at the hands of discontented Lib Dems. However, both whips and ministers got to work, offering loads of concessions, chipping away at the rebellions: those in receipt of Employment Support Allowances (but not Disability Living Allowance) would be exempt from the new £26,000 benefit cap; the grace period was extended to nine months for claimants who had been in work for the previous twelve months, eating up half a Labour amendment in one go; and £130m in transitional support was put on the table for the next two years to smooth in the changes.
In addition, there was what looked to us like evidence of divide-and-rule tactics, whips acquiescing on some rebellions in return for MPs’ support on other aspects of the bill. The end result was that the expected large Lib Dem rebellions fizzled out somewhat. Indeed, only where the Government chose not to make concessions did a reasonably large rebellion occur, 12 Lib Dems objecting to the new under-occupancy penalty on social housing tenants with no more than one spare bedroom. But that aside, the other five rebellions saw 8, 6, 4, 1, and 4 Lib Dem MPs vote against their whip.
And on the key amendment that had caused all the fuss in the Lords – blocking cuts to benefits received by children on the lower rate of Disability Living Allowance – not a single Liberal Democrat backbencher defied the Government.
The real significance of Wednesday’s rebellions is that we’ve now had over 100 Lib rebellions so far this Parliament (104 to be exact), which means that just over one quarter of divisions (26%) have seen Lib Dem MPs break ranks. Of these 104 rebellions, around six in ten (61%) have been on social and economic issues associated with the need to cut public expenditure. It’s a clear example of the divide within the coalition’s backbenchers: with a handful of exceptions, most Conservative MPs have been perfectly happy to see these cuts go ahead.