Nick Clegg’s dishonest defence of his fees U-turn

The decision to triple tuition fees was a political choice, not an economic necessity.

Nick Clegg has issued a rather grudging apology for reneging on his election pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees. "I should have been more careful, perhaps," was all he would say.

He added:

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 [sic].

Clegg's suggestion that "things were even worse than we thought" is dishonest. In the period between the election and the coalition taking power, the state of the public finances improved, rather than worsened. Just ten days after Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister, the deficit was revised downwards from £163.4bn to £156bn, having previously stood at £178bn.

As the sixth-largest economy in the world, Britain 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, well below the OECD average of 1 per cent and 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. We are still waiting for an honest explanation from Clegg.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the gathering was remarkably fractious (PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatened to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, emphasised that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question. But her colleagues' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

But former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained that she had failed to understand how the UK's nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it was "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year, the battle is on to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.