The Coalition decision to raise VAT was, by some measure, the most controversial aspect of the Government’s first budget. In our recent survey of party members, 42% opposed the move, though 48% endorsed it (however reluctantly) to deal with the deficit.
The party’s MPs have also been wrestling with the issue. The VAT increase was debated on Tuesday night in the Commons – in the end only Colchester’s Bob Russell from the Lib Dems voted against the Government, siding with a Labour amendment.
As Jim Pickard in the FT notes, St Ives MP Andrew George, and four other Lib Dems who had tabled amendments to the Government’s bill – Roger Williams, Mark Williams, David Ward, John Leech – chose not to follow through their threat. Andrew explained his reasoning in the Commons:
The Exchequer Secretary said that he will keep a number of issues under review, which is encouraging. I shall certainly be pressing him and Treasury Ministers to ensure that they do so for the three issues that have been raised in the debate. As I indicated earlier, I intended the amendments to be probing, as they have been, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
He also pointed out Labour’s VAT hypocrisy:
I am rather surprised by [Labour partisanship] on the day when Lord Mandelson let the cat out of the bag on Labour’s defence that they would not have introduced a VAT increase after the election. It must be rather difficult for Labour Members to swallow this evening, given all the butter that is not melting in their mouths.
However, Andrew and his colleagues did abstain on the move to raise VAT. And they were joined in their abstention by Nick Clegg’s two immediate predecessors as leader, Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy, as the BBC reports:
The coalition won all VAT-related votes but key Lib Dem backbenchers abstained in some of them or did not vote.
Former leader Charles Kennedy did not take part in any of the votes while his successor as leader Sir Menzies Campbell abstained on a number of opposition amendments.
The government saw off calls in Parliament to scrap the VAT rise or to delay it pending a review on its impact on certain groups but not without concerns being expressed by Lib Dem members.
The coalition won a vote on whether to approve the VAT rise by 321 votes to 246, a majority of 75.
But Mr Russell voted against the move and eight other Lib Dem MPs, including Andrew George, either abstained or did not vote at all.
However, Charles has denied any suggestion of rebellion, according to his local paper:
The MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber was absent when MPs decided on proposals to delay or limit the 2.5% rise announced by Chancellor George Osborne in one of the most unpopular parts of his emergency package. … North East Fife Lib Dem MP Sir Menzies Campbell was also absent for three of the votes on Tuesday but joined the rest of the Lib Dem coalition approving the rise. …
But a spokeswoman in Mr Kennedy’s office made it clear last night that he had “several prior engagements”, and had apologised to deputy chief whip Alistair Carmichael for failing to obtain approval for his absence.
So not a rebellion at all, then. Glad that’s settled.