Cable gets his facts wrong on tuition fees

The Business Secretary is wrong to claim that most universities aren’t planning to charge £9,000.

David Cameron was unable to tell the Commons how many universities plan to charge £9,000 a year in tuition fees at yesterday's PMQs.

Now it appears that Vince Cable, the man with ministerial responsibility for the reforms, isn't sure either.

According to PoliticsHome, the Business Secretary told the House:

There is no hole in the finances. If he follows the public announcement that universities have made, he will have seen that, of the 36 that we are aware of, 13 are planning to charge the maximum and many of those will have substantial fee remission under the Oxford model.

In fact, of the 23 institutions that have publicly announced their plans (it's unclear where the figure of 36 comes from), 18 plan to charge £9,000, the latest being Bath. The reality is that, despite Cable's insistence that universities would only charge the maximum amount in "exceptional circumstances", most now plan to do so. The NUS president, Aaron Porter, originally predicted that 50 per cent would charge full whack, but even that looks like an underestimate.

As a result, due to the huge amounts it will have to pay out in tuition-fee loans, the coalition finds its reforms facing a £1bn funding gap. Cable's claim that "there is no hole in the finances" is not supported by evidence.

As I noted earlier this week, new figures from the House of Commons Library show that if the average fee is £8,600, the state will have to spend £960m more over the next four years. That could mean even bigger cuts to the teaching budget (already facing an 80 per cent reduction) or 38,000 fewer university places. It is time for ministers to tell us their Plan B.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.