The leftward direction of the Liberal Democrats under its new leader Tim Farron has placed Nick Clegg in a very uncomfortable position.
The former deputy prime minister has been left sitting on the backbenches in the House of Commons, where he is forced to choose between toeing the party line or causing what would be a major rebellion in a party of just eight MPs.
It seems Mr Farron is leading the Lib Dems further to the left than Labour, even sending a letter to interim Labour leader Harriet Harman telling her to form a Lib-Lab alliance to fight the Government’s spending cuts.
He walked through the voting lobbies along with his Lib Dem colleagues to oppose the Government's measures in their entirety. He could hardly have rebelled in the first vote of Mr Farron's leadership.
Ms Harman decided Labour would abstain in last night’s vote on the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill, after her “reasoned amendment” to try and water down some of the cuts failed.
She had initially said Labour would back the government’s reforms, telling her party that it must not simply offer “blanket opposition,” but backtracked after coming under intense pressure from her party. The slight change of tack failed to stop 48 Labour MPs rebelling against her and opposing the Bill, along with the eight Lib Dem MPs and 56 SNP MPs.
“Labour claim to be a party who believes in social justice," he wrote. "If that is true, then they must join with the Liberal Democrats in voting against these cruel and excessive cuts.
“I am disappointed by Labour’s confusion over this Bill. To give in to the narrative that the answer to our country’s needs is to pit the poorest in the country against one another is shameful.
“Labour must join us in providing opposition to this Government’s plans. Your economic credibility cannot be built by simply backing Tory plans that hit the working poor.
“The Liberal Democrats will stand up for families, whether they are hard-working or just desperate to be hard-working. We will not let the Conservatives, by their choices, or your party’s failure to oppose these plans unpick our welfare system.”
Labour was also attacked by the SNP over its decision to abstain on the Bill, with the Scottish nationalists claiming that had the three parties united in its opposition to the reforms, they would have defeated the Government. This ignores the fact that the Government would have ensured all of its ministers returned to Westminster from various engagements elsewhere.
SNP MP Pete Wishart mocked Labour’s abstention on the controversial Bill, asking the Speaker to “rearrange the furniture of this House so that the SNP becomes the official Opposition while the Labour party abstains on the backbenches?”
The Speaker saved Ms Harman’s day from getting even worse by dismissing the request. “Notwithstanding the earnest expression on the face of the honourable Gentleman, his point of order was cheeky and tendentious, as he well knows.”
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