The Liberal Democrat position on student fees has been bungled in countless ways. But there must be one error of judgement that is more important than the rest — call it the original sin. Here are my top three contenders:
1. Nick Clegg ducking the chance to reform the policy in 2009
Most senior Lib Dems knew they had a policy to scrap tuition fees that was unrealistic and unaffordable. Secret work was done to come up with an alternative that maintained a critical stance but cost a lot less. The result was a more progressive form of tuition fees — something like the proposals today. When this was put to the Lib Dem MPs and the federal policy group, it went down terribly. Some MPs thought it was futile to attempt to scrap a vote-winning policy when any change would be blocked by the Lib Dem conference. Apparently one of the most persuasive arguments was that the Lib Dems were not going to win the election, so why do the responsible thing? Clegg eventually ducked the confrontation with his party at the 2009 annual conference. How he must be regretting it now.
2. Signing the NUS pledge
A telling point about Clegg is that even after expressing private reservations about the Lib Dem policy, he did everything he could to publicise his pledge to scrap fees. He signed the NUS pledge card and when the cameraman came to film his promise, Clegg obliged. Even worse, Lib Dem HQ encouraged MPs to put their names to the NUS list. There was no sense of damage limitation, no insurance policy. The Lib Dems sought to squeeze as many votes as possible from the pledge. Had they shown more restraint, the pain would be more manageable now.
3. Winning an opt-out, then failing to use it
The coalition agreement carved out an exit strategy for the Lib Dems — a right to abstain on tuition fees. Yet rather than keep the reforms at arms length, the Lib Dems took on full responsibility for redesigning the system. By getting too involved in creating the policy they effectively gave up their right to stand aside. This was partly practical — Vince Cable needed to be given a big department and, once given the business brief, it would have looked silly to hand the most contentious policy to a more junior minister. And it was partly the conceit of the Lib Dems imagining they could come up with a solution that would disarm their critics. Whatever the reason, it trapped them. Lib Dem ministers had little option but to back the policy. This fit with Clegg’s strategy of taking full ownership of coalition programme, warts and all. But it made Clegg look ridiculous when he later sought to invoke the right to abstain to keep his party united. This policy either had to be disowned or embraced from the outset — there was no middle way.