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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.