There were two important “read my lips” moments in the election campaign. One was Clegg’s pledge to oppose a rise in tuition fees. The other was Cameron’s “contract” with the electorate on pensioner perks. Each pledge cost the Treasury a comparable amount (about £7bn and £4bn respectively). Only one politician had to eat his words.
This may be one of the most important trade-offs of the coalition. Tim Montgomerie has done a brilliant job of collating all the Con-Lib compromises so far. But a lot of them are obscure policy disputes, matters for the Westminster village. Most will hardly register with the electorate.
Tuition fees and pensioner benefits were different. They were not just a test of party cohesion, or of policymaking. For these two men, they were a high-profile test of their credibility. It was a question of trust. Are the party leaders true to their word? Can voters believe every big pledge they make? On those terms, Clegg failed the test.
Clegg may have done the responsible thing, at least in policy terms. Many Lib Dems realised their six-step plan to abolish fees was completely undeliverable. Clegg and Cable are probably kicking themselves for not properly confronting the party with some home-truths in 2009. They are both now confident that they have the most practical and equitable system in place, given the constraints.
But the question remains: why did Cameron get away with sparing pensioner perks? Surely the responsible thing would have been to eat his words? The benefits fail the test he applied to child benefit. Why should poor working families pay taxes to fund free bus passes and winter fuel payments for millionaires? The position is indefensible and Cameron was told as much by some Tory cabinet ministers as well as the Lib Dems.
Clegg is betting that the electorate will reward him for his good judgement in government. Cameron, by contrast, made the calculation that voters are more interested in backing politicians who keep their word. His “contract”, which listed all the pensioner pledges on the front page, made the point pretty clearly. “If we don’t deliver our side of the bargain, vote us out in five years’ time.”
Will Clegg escape the electoral reckoning?