There will not be a single Coalition MP went into politics to triple tuition fees. Yet here we are. A depressing truth of wielding power is often-times the only responsible choices boil down to picking ‘the least worst thing’. I wont repeat in any depth my own sad feelings on today’s vote – you can see them here.
In all the noise we’ve had on the subject you can break down the core theme into two parts:
- The fact of a raise in the cap on fees three-fold (Boo)
- The funding arrangements for their payment (Yay)
The removal of the cap stinks for everyone who will be impacted. I have two kids to think about and the figures terrify me. That said, given the nation is skint the realistic choices were always to either:
- have fewer people go to university (when it was free for all we only sent 10% of the population)
- keep aspiring to allow 50% of the population to benefit from higher education but revisit funding to ensure we can afford it.
- no change, keep the current funding arrangements regardless and keep adding to the structural deficit
Only 1 & 2 above were realistic (unless we wish to end up like Ireland). We chose 2 (as would Labour). And here we are. Even the right choices can have unpopular consequences.
Which then brings us to the arrangements for payments. One of the things that has got lost in the debate due to the understandable focus on the headline price increase is the new repayment regime. This is a great leap forward from what we currently have in place. There is an excellent website here which covers this in depth and debunks an number of the myths floating about.
Away from the nuts and bolts of the proposed legislation the other thing that fascinates me about today’s vote is the Lib Dem position. They really are between a rock and a hard place. As I noted last week they need this Coalition to work. One of their fundamental beliefs is Proportional Representation. PR would make coalition government the norm not the exception. Coalition requires compromise. They either stick to their coalition agreement, vote with the Government and take an electoral beating else they pander to the public noise and surrender any future argument on the viability of governing under PR. It must be a nightmare choice for them. I’m hopeful that Clegg will carry them over the line in choosing to do the right thing over the popular thing but have no doubt that if an election was called tomorrow they would be wiped out as a result of this issue. This means if the vote does pass then they will need distance between today and the next election so that they have positive achievements to point to as counterbalance to today’s resentment. For this reason, IF the fees vote passes today I am more confident than ever that this Coalition will go the full distance – any Lib Dem recovery will depend upon it.
On Tuesday I attended a fascinating seminar at Portcullis House on the nuts and bolts of the Coalition negotiations in May. The speakers were Lib Dem David Laws and Tory MP Rob Wilson, both of whom are peddling their respective books on the subject*. For me, it was a unique chance to get a perspective from people who were ‘in the thick of it’.
A blow-by-blow account of the evening has been done by a Lib Dem blogger here and I wont try to better that. I will just summarise my take-away points:
- The Lib Dems were genuinely knocked backwards by their election showing. Nothing in their private polling had led them to expect so few seats. Before polls closed Danny Alexander (then Clegg’s chief-of-staff) was briefing his colleagues to expect 80-85 seats. He was way out.
- The Lib Dems were between a rock and a hard place. Although many of their key players would have felt more comfortable in a ‘progressive coalition’ with Labour – the Parliamentary maths and Labour’s attitude made that a no-go. At the same time if they couldn’t form a coalition with the Conservatives we would enter a period of unstable Government with another election in November. They reasoned a) they would do worse and b) a short-lived impotent hung parliament would be very damaging to their long term aspiration for PR – a system which would lead to hung parliaments as the norm rather than the exception.
- The Labour party machine seemed to have done literally no planning for the eventuality of a hung parliament. Laws had the sense they were making it up as they went along – a sense that Wilson confirmed through his interviews with the key players on their team.
- The Conservatives had done proper planning for the Hung Parliament scenario. They were very quick to produce a document that conceded so much the Lib Dems had no choice but to take them seriously. Laws’ view was that the Tories essentially came into discussions with a ‘cut-to-the-chase’ final position. The only thing that was unacceptable in the first offer was on electoral reform (the proposal being to simply to set up another Commission to look at the subject). I pressed Laws on whether with hindsight – if the Tories showed they had wiggle room on Electoral reform, perhaps there was wiggle room on other areas had he pushed harder. He didn’t think so. I personally do wonder. Wilson made the point that for many, if not most Tories the ‘key concessions’ – the no tax on first £10k and the pupil premium were not any wrench to concede – most would have loved those policies in their manifesto in the first place.
- Laws and the Lib Dems struggled in the negotiations to figure out how to navigate so much so quickly whilst still staying within their internal party processes. When Laws observed the Conservative Party was spared these constraints with the leader being an effective ‘absolute monarchy’ William Hague knowingly shot back that the check and balance was “our monarchy is qualified by frequent regicide”.
- On the final day Brown had lost the plot so much he even offered the Lib Dems 50% of Cabinet seats.
It was a good event and the second time that I have heard Laws speak. He does impress and seems a very good counter-balance to the more loony fringes in the Lib Dem party. It underlined for me the sadness that through his wrong-doing he excluded himself from Cabinet. If you do the wrong thing for the right reasons, you still do the wrong thing. His replacement is not half as able. I noted yesterday that Cameron was asked if he wanted Laws back: “Yes, and soon” was the reply. On reflection, I could live with that.
* Rob Wilson has released 5 Days to Power while David Laws book is 22 Days in May.