SNP MPs question leadership after two defy party whip over Tory benefits plans

TWO SNP MPs have been disciplined and others left “baffled” after they were told to abstain on a crucial benefits vote.

On Monday, Tory MPs voted through their plans to raise Universal Credit by just £10 a month and the state pension by 3.1 per cent, despite fears over soaring living costs.

Despite inflation currently at 4.8%, the Tory’s Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill will see Universal Credit go up by £10.07 per month and the state pension rise by £5.55 a week from April.

Campaigners and opposition politicians have long argued that the 3.1% rise – based on the inflation rate in September 2021 – does not go far enough to help those most in poverty.

They have repeatedly called for the UK Government to reinstate the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit, which was introduced during the pandemic, and reinstate the pensions triple lock.

The Tories broke their manifesto pledge to keep the triple lock as if it were retained, pensions would have increased by 8% to an anomaly over the pandemic which saw average wages rise by 8% also.

The SNP has been highly vocal on the subject, particularly around Universal Credit, launching a campaign calling for people to ‘Reject Rishi’s Universal Credit Crunch’ last year.

READ MORE: DWP urged to reconsider “cruel” benefits cuts that will nullify Scottish Child Payment

Despite this, the party’s 45 MPs were instructed to abstain on the plans on Monday, after chief whip Owen Thompson made a last-minute change to the whipping order just hours before the vote.

The Herald understands the group was originally told to vote against the measures, however Mr Thompson then changed his mind around three hours before the vote, ordering MPs instead not to vote at all.

It has led some to question the party’s decision-making in Westminster and the judgement of both Ian Blackford, the Westminster leader, and chief whip Owen Thompson. 

David Linden, the SNP’s work and pensions spokesman, defied the party whip for the first time in his career to vote against the plans.

Chris Stephens, the party’s Fair Work and Employment spokesman, also voted against.

The pair have now been rebuked by the chief whip, and told they had “compromised group discipline” by their actions.

HeraldScotland: David Linden, left, and Chris Stephens voted against the Tory plans and defied their party whipDavid Linden, left, and Chris Stephens voted against the Tory plans and defied their party whip

The Herald understands that several other MPs are unhappy about the decision to abstain, but decided to abide by the instructions from Mr Thompson.

One senior SNP source said: “We were planning to vote against the bill when all of a sudden we were told that it had changed and we were to abstain entirely. I was completely baffled.

“It goes against all that we have been doing to highlight the unfair Tory tax rises, cut to universal credit and the fact that this is a real-terms cut for people who are struggling.

“Why the position changed on Monday is unclear, and there are a lot of people in the group very angry about it.”

Another SNP source added: “It’s left a lot of people questioning the decision-making from Ian (Blackford) and Owen (Thompson), and why these decisions are being made at the last minute.

“ Voting against the plans wouldn’t have changed the outcome – the Tories still would have got them through anyway – but it’s about the principle of it. We are completely opposed to what the Tories are doing on this front, so there is no logical reason why we wouldn’t vote against it and show exactly how we feel.

“I didn’t defy the whip, but I thought about it. I think there’s a lot of sympathy and understanding from within the group for David and Chris, people understand why they did it and probably wish they had done it as well.”

Another said: “I disagreed with the decision to abstain. It was the wrong decision in my view and I didn’t feel comfortable with it.”

Labour MPs were also instructed to abstain from the vote, however 13 defied their whip and voted against it including former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and former education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey.

A total of 289 Tories voted for the plans, including Scottish MPs Douglas Ross, John Lamont, David Duguid, David Mundell and Andrew Bowie.

An SNP spokesman said he would “not comment on internal communications” but said it would have been wrong to vote against any increase to benefits.

He said: “A decade of Tory cuts and freezes to social security has inflicted untold damage on households and families. The uprating for 2022/23 will not make up for four long years of Tory benefit freezes prior to the pandemic and represents a real terms cut to people’s benefits. However, it would not be appropriate to reject even a small increase in people’s benefits – however meagre and unsatisfactory the uplift offered by this Tory government.

“In stark contrast, the SNP Scottish Government is taking all the steps it can to tackle poverty and inequality, including doubling the Scottish Child Payment to £20 per child per week from April, and increasing the Child Winter Heating Allowance by 5% – supporting 19,000 families.

“We do not comment on internal communications.”

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