It seems as if the tension may be getting to some Liberal Democrats. I just called Lady Sharp, who is – it transpires – the party’s higher education spokeswoman in the House of Lords. Sharp is quoted in this morning’s Guardian prevaricating over tonight’s tuition fees vote. (“She pointed out that, even on official calculations, £2.7bn of the £10bn due to be lent annually to students will not be repaid.”)
With only a few hours to go before the peers’ voting, the peer still claims to be undecided: “I’m going to make up my mind during the debate,” she told me before hanging up the phone.
I’m told there is a strong chance of the coalition losing a vote this afternoon in the House of Lords. Not on tuition fees, which will be debated in the evening.
Instead a cross-bench peer, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, has proposed an amendment to stop the coalition scrapping the post of chief coroner in its Public Bodies Bill (otherwise known as the bonfire of the quangos). Labour have a three-line whip on its peers to back Finlay, who also has the sympathy of many other cross-benchers. Read more
A pearl from Gary Gibbon’s blog:
Deputy Leader Simon Hughes is coming in for particular stick from colleagues. “He’s had more positions than the Kama Sutra on this”, one fellow Lib Dem MP said. “He’s not rubber, he’s putty.”**
Very well put. It’s a reminder that most of the refusniks on the Lib Dem side are far from untainted. They may be sticking to their election campaign pledge, but they are breaking their word to abide by the coalition agreement. As one of the “rebels” told me, “we should have done more earlier, we have blood on our hands too”.
Remember that no MP voted against the coalition agreement and only Charlie Kennedy abstained. The Lib Dem special conference, which included some 2,000 delegates, was almost North Korean in its support. No delegate stood up and questioned whether an abstention was enough to protect Lib Dem honour on tuition fees. And no more than a dozen activists actually voted against the full deal.
These arguments aren’t really washing with the rebel MPs though. The mood on the Lib Dem backbenches is to vote no rather than abstain. As Gibbon notes, they can all do the maths and see that the proposals will almost certainly go through. And who would want to explain to voters the reasons for them sitting on the fence?
One additional problem for Clegg is that the whips have lost some of their best arguments. With all the ministers backing Clegg, they can’t even dangle the prospect of a promotion in front of backbenchers who stay loyal. Read more
The prospect of all Lib Dem MPs — including Clegg and Cable — abstaining on the tuition fee rise never did seem likely.
Well, Vince Cable has consigned the idea to the dustbin, saying he’ll vote for a rise in fees. He broke the news to the Twickenham Times: Read more
If you asked a Lib Dem MP whether they would abstain on tuition fees given a free vote, the answer would almost certainly be no. Most of them have very strong views on the matter. Vince Cable just spelled out the obvious: his “personal instinct” is to vote for the policy he developed.
Yet when 57 Lib Dem MPs gather in one room, strange things begin to happen to their judgement.
Even Nick Clegg is now seriously considering the mass abstention option — bravely leading his party to sit on the fence.
To be fair, there are no good options. They will be punished for breaking their pledge to vote against a rise. But it seems that after countless hours of excruciating debate, they’ve decided the best way to minimise the pain is to not vote at all. Read more
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. Read more
Pat McFadden has become the latest senior Labour figure to question the party’s own proposals for a graduate tax, urging his colleagues instead to back the coalition’s plan for further education funding laid out by Lord Browne this week – writes Elizabeth Rigby.
In a shot across the bows of Ed Miliband, his new leader, the Blairite former business minister of state said yesterday that Labour should stop opposing the plans and concentrate on making the Browne proposals more palatable to less affluent pockets of society. Lord Browne’s report on higher education, which is likely to be backed by the coalition, has advocated charging more for courses funded through student loans rather than a pure graduate tax. Read more
Alex has written several times in recent months about the huge cost of lending students interest-free loans to pay for their education. For example here. As he wrote back in July, the subsidy works out as 23p in the £1, according to IFS research.
It seems that Vince Cable is now moving towards a “graduate contribution” which could fall somewhat harder on high earners than low earners. It is likely to be combined with a loosening of the cap on fees, which the Russell Group of top universities – and others – want scrapped. (Lord Browne’s review of tuition fees is expected in October). Read more