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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.