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Abstaining on tuition fees won’t save Lib Dem credibility

A mass abstention would still break the party’s pledge to vote against higher tuition fees.

Vince Cable has finally admitted what we've known for days: that Lib Dem ministers are considering abstaining in the vote on higher tuition fees.

The Business Secretary, whose brief, lest you forget, includes higher education, told BBC Radio 5 Live: "If we all abstain then that is the position I am happy to go along with. There is an option that we all abstain together and we are considering that. My own personal instincts – partly because I am the Secretary of State responsible for universities and partly because I think the policy is right – are very much to vote for it. But we have got to vote as a group, collectively, and we are discussing how we do that."

Yet a mass abstention would not save his party's credibility. For a start, it would still break the election pledge, made by every Lib Dem MP, to vote against any attempt to increase tuition fees. Moreover, the fact that Cable has offered a principled, as opposed to merely pragmatic defence of the plans, describing them as "fair and progressive", means that abstention is no longer a serious option.

The Lib Dems will earn more respect from supporters and opponents alike if they make an honest argument for tuition fees. Abstention, the worst of all possible options, would only look like an attempt to have it both ways.