Choosing between principles and party

Some smart politics by Labour - they've put down a motion for their opposition day on Monday calling for the government to postpone the forthcoming rise in fuel duty, at least until next April.

That puts a number of Conservative MPs in quite a difficult position, and in particular Harlow's Robert Halfon, who has campaigned relentlessly to freeze fuel duty, and has incurred the displeasure of his whips by doing so.

He has put down several Early Day Motions and introduced a private members' bill on the issue - and he looks a dead cert to defy the whip and vote with Labour on Monday, unless the government offers a more attractive alternative.

Even if the government was already planning to continue the duty freeze, Labour will now be positioned to take a share of the credit. And the debate will tee up fuel duty as a major issue both in the Autumn Statement on 5 December, and in George Osborne's next budget.

Of course, the planned increase in fuel duty dates back to Alistair Darling's last budget in March 2010, and Tory MPs will doubtless make that point, but the Chancellor will now have to pay a bigger political price to keep it going, or seek to find less unpopular ways of raising revenue, elsewhere (if such things exist).

Mr Halfon's latest EDM suggests using the proceeds of the 4G spectrum auction to offset the costs of a freeze on the duty.... it could raise around £2bn-£3bn in 2013; which, as he pointed out in the Commons yesterday, would be enough to scrap the Labour government's 3p petrol tax twice over. Mr Balls proposes that the current freeze should continue until April, funded by a crackdown on tax evasion - so his is a much more modest and short-lived proposal, even if the logic for maintaining the freeze would doubtless be just as compelling then.

No-one expects a Tory rebellion of any great scale on Monday, but the seven Conservatives who signed Mr Halfon's EDM 669, for example, are in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between their stated principles and their party.

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