It's been a bad week for Nick Clegg, who was all over the place on the thorny subject of higher education funding while standing in for David Cameron at PMQs on Wednesday and then admitted that he "regretted" signing a pre-election pledge to oppose a rise in tuition fees for university students. Now we learn that, just two months before the general election, despite publicly and repeatedly promising to scrap fees, he and his colleagues were having internal discussions about the need to drop the pledge in the event of a hung parliament.
From the Guardian's front page:
The Liberal Democrats were drawing up plans to abandon Nick Clegg's flagship policy to scrap university tuition fees two months before the general election, secret party documents reveal.
As the Lib Dem leader faces a growing revolt after this week's violent protest against fee rises, internal documents show the party was drawing up proposals for coalition negotiations which contrasted sharply with Clegg's public pronouncements.
A month before Clegg pledged in April to scrap the "dead weight of debt", a secret team of key Lib Dems made clear that, in the event of a hung parliament, the party would not waste political capital defending its manifesto pledge to abolish university tuition fees within six years. In a document marked "confidential" and dated 16 March, the head of the secret pre-election coalition negotiating team, Danny Alexander, wrote: "On tuition fees we should seek agreement on part-time students and leave the rest. We will have clear yellow water with the other [parties] on raising the tuition fee cap, so let us not cause ourselves more headaches."
. . . The Lib Dem document is disclosed in a new book on the coalition negotiations by Rob Wilson, Conservative MP for Reading East. Wilson, who interviewed 60 key figures from the main parties for Five Days to Power reveals that: the Lib Dems made no attempt to stand by their two key economic election pledges – no deficit reduction this year and opposition to a VAT increase – in the coalition negotiations.
Lefties inside the party have always suspected that the Orange Book, neoliberal leadership of Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, David Laws at al were never committed to the totemic pledge to scrap fees. As the Guardian article notes, "Clegg tried to downgrade the pledge to abolish tuition fees at the 2009 party conference, prompting a backlash from the left. A plan to abolish them over six years was included in the general election manifesto."
The irony is that Alexander's March memo did, however, suggest that while the Lib Dems would drop the pledge to scrap fees they would still preserve "clear yellow water" (boom, boom!) with the other two parties "on raising the tuition fee cap". But here, too, the party that so assiduously courted student voters and made a song and dance about the need for "principles" in politics caved in to the Conservatives. Cable and Clegg flirted with a graduate tax over the summer, but were slapped down by their Tory bosses. Students now face university fees of up to £9,000.
I was on Radio 5 Live last night discussing this subject with the former Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris, who claimed that such pledges were made on the basis of winning the election and forming a majority, single-party government. Harris's argument is that the Lib Dems can't be blamed for having to trim and compromise in order to form a stable coalition with a (much) bigger partner. To an extent, he has a point. But he is still being disingenuous, for three reasons:
- Harris, like every other member of his party, knew that the Lib Dems were never, ever going to win the election and form a government on their own. If he truly believed otherwise, then he should go and lie down in a dark room for a while.
- Any party going into coalition negotiations can have "red lines", that is to say, issues or policies that they will not, under any circumstances, compromise on. Cameron's were spending cuts, Trident renewal, EU powers and the immigration cap. Why didn't Clegg make opposing higher tuition fees one of his "red lines"? Is it because, deep down, he was happy to junk the pledge and use the coalition negotiations as cover?
- Every single Lib Dem MP signed a pre-election NUS pledge card, in April, that clearly stated: "I pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees in the next parliament." There were no "ifs" or "buts", no caveat saying ". . . unless there is a hung parliament". To violate such an explicit and high-profile pledge is unforgivable, not to mention politically suicidal. No wonder the former leaders Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy plan to rebel against the Lib-Con coalition over tuition fees.
Meanwhile, earlier this week, the Guardian reported that the National Union of Students plans to "try to force by-elections in seats where Lib Dems abstain or vote in favour of higher tuition fees". Good luck to 'em. Perhaps they could start with Sheffield Hallam . . .