Lib Dem credibility is on the line over fees

How can Vince Cable credibly abstain on his own higher education policy?

After Vince Cable's torturously-worded email put paid to hopes of a graduate tax, the coalition is facing the prospect of its first serious rebellion on fees. The coalition agreement allows for Lib Dem ministers to abstain from votes on higher fees, but how can Cable, whose departmental brief includes universities, credibly defend a policy that even he isn't prepared to vote for?

As one Lib Dem minister points out:

Frankly, it's going to look pretty awful for us if we're in a government that's putting forward a policy that we're not prepared to vote for ourselves. And it's going to be worst of all for Vince if he proposes something in Parliament then abstains on it.

Meanwhile, between 20-30 of the Lib Dems' 57 MPs are expected to keep their pre-election pledge to vote against any increase in fees. Chief among them is Sir Menzies Campbell, who last week told the BBC: "I will vote against any increase in the level of tuition fees. My root objection is to students being saddled with mountains of debt by the time they leave university."

Other Lib Dems, particularly those who represent university seats such as Cambridge, Leeds and Bristol, remain unambiguously opposed to any rise in fees. The creation of a US-style market in higher education -- with variable fees between different universities and courses -- is rightly seen as intolerable.

The Tories have attempted to sweeten the pill by promising that higher-earners will pay higher interest-rates on their loan -- a de facto graduate tax -- but the proposal remains unacceptable. Ed Miliband's promise to "work with anybody" who wants a progressive system of university finance -- a thinly-veiled attempt to woo disaffected Lib Dems -- only heightens the political dangers to the Lib Dem leadership.

One suspects that the Tories, like Labour in 2004, will manage to sneak the measure through Parliament. But the long-term credibility of the coalition -- and the Lib Dems -- is on the line.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.