“The poorest households spend three times more of their income on household energy bills than the richest households spend. As long as we are in the EU, we are not allowed to cut this tax,” Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Gisela Stuart claimed in an article written for The Sun on 31 May, 2016. “When we Vote Leave, we will be able to scrap this unfair and damaging tax. It isn’t right that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels impose taxes on the poorest and elected British politicians can do nothing.”
That was the Brexit promise. Fast forward to the December 2019 general election, and while not couched in those precise terms, there was, again, a manifesto pledge for lower energy bills as part of the so-called levelling up agenda. “For many families, energy costs are a major source of financial pressure. We will keep our existing energy cap and introduce new measures to lower bills.”
So far, the only thing this government has levelled up are a peer’s potholes on his private drive, for which he was awarded the princely sum of £330,000 from public funds. Hardly the best use of our hard-earned taxes. We’re in the midst of an energy crisis now. EU countries, like Spain, have just cut VAT on consumer energy bills to zero per cent. Why is the UK lagging on this measure, which we were told would be so much easier if we were to Leave the EU by none other than the top three leaders of the pro-Brexit campaign who now sit in 10 Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and the House of Lords respectively?
Boris Johnson is dragging his feet…
“It’s complicated,” Johnson seems to say, or rather, he goes off on a tangent, listing other things he says the government is doing to address fuel poverty, some of which sound good, but are fanciful lies. Poorer households do not get a weekly “warm home discount” of £140 per week, for example, as Johnson twice claimed at a recent PMQs. He did not correct the record, so must have intended for this lie to stand. The truth is, it is £140 per year, which will not go far to cancel out the £600-£700 increase in the energy cap that is expected to hit families in April this year. That is on top of the £235 increase in the energy cap in 2021.
More alarming for democracy, instead of answering the question as to why he has not honoured his pledge to scrap VAT on consumer energy bills, he ‘othered’ anyone who had voted ‘Remain’. It is as if he does not know that parliament is supposed to rule in the interest of every single one of the 66.8 million people of the United Kingdom, not just the 17.4 million who voted Leave back in 2016. When you win an election or a referendum, then all of us are entitled to hold the winner to account for their promises and to scrutinise their record in carrying them out, not just the few who voted for the winner.
Cutting VAT on energy bills is something we could do right now. That EU countries have already done it shows that it is not impossible or too complicated to do. It will only save families about one-tenth of the expected increase in the energy price cap, but something is better than nothing. Johnson’s opposition to it is, so he says, because it is “a blunt instrument” in that it will also benefit wealthy families who can well afford to pay it.
This might have been a convincing argument had precision targeting been a concern when introducing the furlough scheme, which excluded 3.8 million people and lost an estimated £5 billion to fraud, or the 10.4 percent increase in National Insurance (from 12 percent to 13.25 per cent) that will take effect in April 2022. The working poor will be hit harder by the latter, because there is an upper earnings limit for National Insurance, so the more you earn, the less you pay as a proportion of your earnings. Incidentally, this increase in National Insurance represents yet another broken manifesto pledge, as does the so-called “Dementia Tax”, which also hits the less well-off harder.
Labour’s attempt to force Johnson’s hand…
Families need help now. Already feeling the pinch, there is a cost-of-living crisis brewing for April, with these increasing energy costs and higher taxes kicking in and the impact of further Brexit-induced inflation. Reports of thirty-mile tailbacks at ports and containers taking four weeks to clear when they used to take four minutes have been kept out of the headlines by Johnson’s shambolic shenanigans that include dodgy décor finance from donors and a number of boozy, lockdown-breaking parties.
There is no time for one of Johnson’s excruciating episodes of dithering. When the government ruled out a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, because “they’re struggling”, according to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi (who before he became a minister earned more as a consultant to energy companies than he did as an MP), Labour decided to act. The party used its Opposition Day debate on 11 January to lay a binding motion before the Commons to guarantee parliamentary time for a Bill on a VAT cut to home energy bills. If passed, it would have forced MPs to actively vote for or against the legislation to implement this cut.
Anne Marie Morris stood by the manifesto this government was elected on…
Despite all the warm words from Conservative MPs about cutting VAT on energy bills in particular, or wanting to help hard-pressed families in general, only one voted for the motion. That was Newton Abbott MP, Anne Marie Morris. She is no stranger to controversy, having also voted against the whip on previous Labour motions in support of free school meals vouchers for children from poorer families.
Johnson reacted swiftly by removing the whip from her. In other words, he effectively expelled her from the Conservative party. It is not the first time this has happened to her: Theresa May withdrew the whip from her over her use of the N-word. That was understandable. This time it is not. It merely makes Johnson look petty and churlish.
In the short term, losing the whip will mean that Ms Morris will sit in the Commons as an independent. She should sit on the Opposition benches, but other Tory MPs who have had the whip withdrawn, like Julian Lewis, who lost the whip for 6 months in 2020, did not, so don’t be surprised to see her sit in her usual place. A key disadvantage at this crucial point in Johnson’s premiership is that she cannot submit a letter to the 1922 Committee to call for a vote of no confidence in the leader, or vote in a leadership contest, should one occur. She will also not be eligible for preferment – i.e. a ministerial job.
Longer-term, it will mean that come next election, the Conservative party will choose another candidate to stand against her, and she will not benefit from the money, endorsement or party election machinery. It is something to remember, the next time we moan that this or that MP has only abstained in a vote. They have to pick their battles carefully, if this is what they risk.
For Boris Johnson, removing the whip from Anne Marie Morris means he now has 360 MPs, and that in turn, means the 1922 Committee only needs to receive 54 letters to trigger a leadership contest instead of 55. For its part, the Whips’ Office has said it removed the whip from Anne Marie Morris not for the content of the motion, but because of the mechanics of it. The motion would have given Labour control of the order paper (the business of the day) in the House of Commons for the duration of the debate.
This is a technicality few voters would consider important. Indeed, many might consider it healthy for our democracy if the almighty executive’s grip on the legislature is loosened from time to time. Parliament is supposed to be supreme, but the executive’s whip appears to have a choke-hold on it. Boris Johnson’s government has yet more egg on its face, showing that it cares more about “winning” than it does about leveraging parliament’s hive-mind to hammer out some practical and meaningful assistance to families grappling with the cost-of-living crisis. So much for levelling up. It is proving to be just another empty Johnsonian slogan.
As for Anne Marie Morris, she is unrepentant. “I will not apologise,” she said. Nor should she. On 12 January, she issued a statement saying she would always prioritise the needs of her constituents over parliamentary procedure:
“It is deeply disappointing to have had the Whip removed by the Government, especially on a matter of simply standing up for what I believed to be the best interests of my constituents.
Yesterday’s Opposition Day debate on removing VAT on household energy bills was an issue that I have voiced my support for a number of times, not least in my weekly column on Monday. I believe removing VAT is the right thing to do and I won’t apologise for supporting measures that would help my hard-working constituents at a time when the cost of living is rising.”
Although we may not always agree with her policy choices, in this instance and on this point of principle, we applaud Anne Marie Morris’ stand. We agree with her that “People are struggling with their energy bills and action is needed and it’s needed now.”
Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw has expressed solidarity with Ms Morris:
And Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport MP Luke Pollard:
At the time of going to press, none of Ms Morris’ erstwhile conservative colleagues had tweeted in support of her. All the more reason for West Country Voices to thank her for doing the right thing on this occasion.