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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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.