Clegg and Cable at odds over tuition fees defence

Clegg blames the public finances, Cable blames the coalition agreement. Here's why the difference ma

Vince Cable has caused some consternation this morning with his claim that the Lib Dems haven't broken their promises on tuition fees. The coalition's "economic guru" (in the words of David Cameron) argues that since his party didn't win the election they are not bound by their manifesto pledges.

He told The Politics Show:

We didn't break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn't win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it's the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I'm trying to honour

His argument is not without merit, although it ignores an obvious alternative: not to enter coalition in the first place. The Lib Dems could have entered a confidence and supply agreement with the Tories and kept their election pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees.

But it remains a more plausible defence than Nick Clegg's claim that the state of the public finances meant the pledge was impossible to keep. He recently told the BBC:

At the time I really thought we could do it. I just didn't know, of course, before we came into government, quite what the state of the finances were.

This argument, as I've pointed out before, is remarkably dishonest. The Lib Dems were fully aware of the state of the public finances before the election and the UK, as the sixth largest economy in the world, can easily afford to fund free higher education through general taxation.

In public expenditure terms, the UK currently spends just 0.7 per cent of its GDP on higher education, a lower level than France (1.2 per cent), Germany (0.9 per cent), Canada (1.5 per cent), Poland (0.9 per cent) and Sweden (1.4 per cent). Even the United States, where students make a considerable private contribution, spends 1 per cent of its GDP on higher education - 0.3 per cent more than the UK does.The coalition's decision to triple tuition fees was a political choice, not an economic necessity.

But more significantly, Clegg's argument suggests that even a hypothetical Lib Dem government would have been forced to raise tuition fees. By contrast, Cable's argument suggests that only the coalition agreement prevented party policy being fulfilled. The abiding impression is that while Cable still believes in the pledge, Clegg couldn't wait for an excuse to drop it.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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