Will this picture come back to haunt Nick Clegg?

He was among 57 Lib Dem MPs who signed an NUS pledge to vote against any rise in university tuition

It's been reported today that John Browne's forthcoming review of university finances is likely to favour higher tuition fees over Vince Cable's proposed graduate tax. The review, due to be published on 11 October, is unconvinced by Cable's plans, which break the link between student and university.

The proposals are expected to allow vice-chancellors to raise their fees enough to allow a market between universities -- £6,000 or £7,000 a year.

For the Liberal Democrats, this is problematic. For many years, one of its flagship policies has been opposition to any form of tuition fees at all.

The coalition agreement makes a brief reference to this potential crisis:

If the response of the government to Lord Browne's report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote.

But will this be sufficient? As Greg Hurst points out in the Times (£), the NUS rather astutely persuaded all 57 Lib Dem MPs -- including Vince Cable and Nick Clegg -- to sign a pledge saying that they would vote against any rise in tuition fees.

Clegg can be seen above proudly holding his signed pledge. Here is what he said at the time:

Labour and the Conservatives have been trying to keep tuition fees out of this election campaign. Despite the huge financial strain fees already place on Britain's young people, it is clear both Labour and the Conservatives want to lift the cap on fees . . .

The Liberal Democrats are different. Not only will we oppose any raising of the cap, we will scrap tuition fees for good, including for part-time students . . . Students can make the difference in countless seats in this election. Use your vote to block those unfair tuition fees and get them scrapped once and for all.

If he sticks to abstention -- as laid out in the coalition agreement -- rather than actively opposing any fee hike, Clegg will be hoping that students don't take this advice too literally and punish the Lib Dems at the next election.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories