Lib Dem MPs have a duty to vote against higher fees

Rebellion grows as Michael Gove announces new cap of £9,000 on tuition fees.

Michael Gove's announcement that university tuition fees will be capped at £9,000 – £2,000 higher than originally suggested by Vince Cable – spares us the unlimited market proposed by the Browne review.

But this still represents a significant increase from the current limit of £3,290 and Lib Dem backbenchers, all of whom (including, as shown, Nick Clegg) pledged to vote against any rise in fees, are understandably concerned.

In what looks like a damage-limitation exercise by the coalition, Gove announced the increase on the Today programme this morning and David Willetts will make a Commons statement at 12.30pm. Cable, who is officially responsible for universities policy, is nowhere to be seen.

The coalition agreement allows the Lib Dems to abstain from any vote, but many, particularly those who represent university seats, are determined to honour their pledge.

The latest rebel is Jenny Willott, MP for Cardiff Central and PPS to Chris Huhne. She said: "I will not support an increase in tuition fees and I'm deeply concerned about increasing levels of student debt." Should she stick to her pledge to vote against any increase in fees, she will be required to resign or be sacked as a PPS.

Other rebels include the party grandees Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy, Greg Mulholland, MP for Leeds North-West, Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, Stephen Williams, MP for Bristol West, and (of course) Bob Russell. In total, as many as 20 of the party's 37 backbenchers are expected to vote against the government.

The coalition isn't heading for a Commons defeat – that would require at least a dozen Tory MPs to join the rebellion – but it is facing the biggest rebellion of this parliament.

Lib Dem MPs should not be bought off by talk of the government "widening access". Nor should the argument that the "situation has changed" since May persuade anyone. The Budget deficit was larger, not smaller, at the time of the election. The Lib Dems have a moral duty to vote against higher tuition fees.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's confidence shows he knows he's safe

Even after the Copeland by-election defeat, Labour MPs believe their leader is unassailable.

A week after Tony Blair’s pro-Remain cry, Jeremy Corbyn rose to deliver a speech on “the road to Brexit”.  But it is the road to ruin that Labour MPs believe he is leading them along. The party last night became the first opposition to lose a by-election to the government since 1982. Were the Copeland cataclysm replicated across the country (and Labour traditionally underperforms at general elections), the Conservatives would win a majority of 114.

MPs believe this new nadir is not in spite of Corbyn but because of him. They blame his historic opposition to nuclear power (the seat’s major employer) and personal unpopularity for the Tories’ triumph (with the largest swing to a governing party since 1966). In his speech, Corbyn hailed Labour’s victory against Ukip in the accompanying Stoke by-election (though Paul Nuttall didn’t make it hard for them) and attributed the Copeland defeat to voters feeling “let down by the political establishment”. Yet in the Cumbrian constituency it was not a populist upstart that benefited but Theresa May’s government. Even the Prime Minister’s refusal to save local maternity services (“Babies will die,” warned the opposition) wasn’t enough to spare Labour. 

Asked by ITV journalist Chris Ship whether he had “looked in the mirror” and asked “could the problem actually be me?”, Corbyn flatly replied: “No”. He did not sound as if he was lying. “Why not?” pressed Ship. “Thank you for your question,” the leader said.

Corbyn speaks with the confidence of a man who knows that he is, for now, unassailable. In Labour’s internal conflict, it is not last night’s result that counts but last year’s leadership election. Corbyn emerged strengthened from that contest and MPs fear a similar outcome in the event of a new contest. Though activists express increasing anxiety about the party’s fortunes, most remain loyal to the leader they re-elected last summer. “We are a campaigning party, we campaign for social justice in this country,” Corbyn emphasised. Many voted for him believing, after the Tories’ surprise majority, that the 2020 election had been lost in advance. From this perspective, opposition is not the means to an end (government) but an end in itself. 

The bulk of Corbyn’s speech was a defence of the party’s decision to accept Brexit. In the post-referendum climate, Labour is being squeezed by the pro-Remain Lib Dems and the pro-Leave Tories (who have benefited from Ukip defectors). Though the party has championed amendments, such as one guaranteeing EU nationals’ rights, its commitment to vote for Article 50 regardless meant its efforts have struggled to acquire momentum. “No deal is a bad deal,” Corbyn declared of May’s threat to depart without an agreement. But that the Prime Minister can even float this possibility is a mark of Labour’s weakness.

A day may yet come when Corbyn faces a palace coup or reaches for the pearl-handled revolver. But Copeland is proof that his job is far safer than those of many of his MPs. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.