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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Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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