The 10 failures of Nick Clegg on tuition fees
The government’s decision yesterday to call the crunch vote on tuition fees on the earliest possible date – next Thursday – is no surprise. For as of Tuesday it is clear that the media have turned on Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrat party over tuition fees. The narrative of betrayal has taken hold and the yellow lot are getting the biggest kicking of their political lives.
If this is erosion of trust, then we have reached the point where the cliff is sliding into the sea. The reputation of the party, its leaders and most of its MPs is plumbing new depths. The party is at 10 per cent in the polls. The brand is being trashed.
Nonetheless, Clegg and Cable may still be making some progress towards what has been their prime objective on fees - securing the passage of the legislation in a crunch vote later this month in order to keep the Coalition together.
Their problem is that the damage now being inflicted daily on the Lib Dems starts to change the calculations of everyone from Clegg to backbench MPs to party members. It intensifies doubts about Clegg’s ability to provide David Cameron with the abstentions he needs to win the vote. And, even if Clegg can manage to deliver enough of his MPs, the battering raises the question of whether the victory will prove to be pyrrhic.
How has it come to this? They key is the National Union of Students’ pledge signed by all the Lib Dem MPs - or rather, how Clegg has handled it.
The pledge is simple and explicit. “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament...” Clegg has voiced regrets about signing it, as if his mistake was a youthful indiscretion from a time of naivety before he entered government. The truth is different, and much less excusable in a man who wants to be considered a grown up politician leading a grown up party.
In the years before the election, Clegg and Cable tried without success to get the party to abandon its policy of abolishing fees. This was Clegg’s first failure. They then allowed - some say encouraged - MPs to sign the NUS pledge, wedding themselves ever more tightly to the policy. This was the second failure.
In the coalition negotiations in early May, Clegg clearly recognised there was a difficulty over fees. That’s why he negotiated the right of abstention. But he either didn’t realise how severe the problem was, or he was not prepared to risk losing the deal with Cameron by fighting over a red line.
In places like the Netherlands where they have coalitions all the time, striking the deal after an election takes months. Here, they did it in days. On reflection, it is now becoming clear that the right of abstention only partially deals with the problem. This was Clegg’s third failure.
In the months following the election, the Coalition did not give the policy the attention it deserved. Cable floundered for a bit in the graduate tax swamp but the Coalition’s leaders never properly grappled with the substantive issues. In all the horse trading of the Comprehensive Spending Review, Clegg missed his opportunity to secure a good enough deal on fees. Consequently, when John Browne delivered his proposals on 12 October, the Coalition leaders had not worked out a settled policy and were on the back foot. This was Clegg’s fourth failure.
By this point, the Lib Dem leader was already in deep trouble. The NUS pledge has a simple directness that means there are only three ways for an MP to handle it successfully. To vote against a rise in fees. To resign and fight a by-election. Or to persuade the world that the new policy is, taken as a whole, a good thing - preferably with the NUS agreeing to release them from their pledge.
In the polls, the party had lost half its voters to Labour while Conservative support remained solid. In a departure from the situation on 7 May, this meant - and still does - that Clegg could not risk a breach with Cameron that might trigger a general election. This meant the first two options for dealing with the pledge were out. Only the route of persuasion was left. Clegg had no choice but to attempt an act of true political leadership, taking his party to a place it did not want to go.
If the position had been reversed with the Lib Dems up to 30 per cent and the Conservatives down to a similar level then Clegg could have simply demanded a different policy, eg no change. As it was, on 3 November he got a policy that was arguably progressive but definitely short on reassuring detail and with an alarming headline figure of a fees cap at £9,000.
Armed with a policy that offers the prospect of a dramatic shrinking of the state, Conservatives offered their Coalition colleagues ever more tea and sympathy. But for Clegg, the policy was not a good basis for persuading a sceptical party. This was his fifth failure.
The strategy now was set as one of obscurity and velocity. Clegg and Cable made no attempt to fan out and sell the policy to the country. Cable left it to David Willetts to explain the policy in the House of Commons and both the Lib Dems have only spoken on the topic in public when they have had to. Appearances have all been reactive. Instead, they buried themselves in Westminster. They aimed for a quick vote to minimise any damage and concentrated on selling the policy to their MPs and the people on the party’s committees who have the power to green light a change in policy.
This was Clegg’s sixth failure, for in the vacuum students have seized the initiative. They have provided the urgency, the visceral shiver of violence, the pictures. A half-baked policy, badly handled and built on a lie has provided the rest. The journalists have everything they need for a compellingly watchable mediathon. If they hadn’t called the vote soon, it would have become like the X-Factor with, improbably, added schadenfreude.
Sometimes when rattled, Clegg and Cable accurately point out that an earlier Labour government ratted on its manifesto and raised tuition fees. But this only exposes their amateurishness. Tony Blair devotes most of a chapter in his autobiography to the tuition fees campaign and spent months preparing the policy. Clegg and Cable have never focused on it so intently or sold it with the same conviction. Also, Blair’s pitch was unsullied by the suspicion that he was selling his soul for a taste of power. So while Blair succeeded in taking the edge off the U-turn, Clegg has allowed the narrative of betrayal to become established.
At the policy level, Clegg and Cable have struggled to come up with anything convincing to explain their change of heart. Their best shot has been the Coalition’s trump card - that the country has run out of money. But with tuition fees, even trumps are not what they seem.
The government is cutting £2.9 billion a year from the money the Department of Business Innovation and Skills gives to universities, which academics are describing as an 80 per cent cut in funding for teaching. But universities will continue to receive as much money as before, if not more. In future, the money will just come from tuition fees rather than BIS. Via student loans, the government will still be providing the cash. And it will be well past the next election before repayments become significant.
The question then is, how much will the government be providing in student loans, and how much will graduates pay back? This week we got some answers.
Buried in a report released by the Office of Budget Responsibility on Monday is an assessment of the impact of the government’s tuition fees plans on its finances. The OBR concludes that by 2015 when the new fees policy is fully bedded in, the extra government borrowing for student loans will be £5.6bn a year. Even allowing for inflation, that looks like more than the £2.9bn a year the government is saving at BIS.
The key difference between the Coalition and Labour in economic policy is precisely the question of how fast and deep the reduction in the country’s borrowing needs to be. The hundreds of thousands of public sector job cuts, the pain the whole country is about to endure follows from George Osborne’s conviction that borrowing needs to be reduced fast. But here we have a policy whose effect is to increase borrowing over the disputed period. It is causing our interest payments to rise, not fall. This isn’t a trump, it’s an own goal.
Worse, the independent Higher Education Policy Institute believes so many students will fail to repay their debt in full that even in the long run, when all repayments decades from now are taken into account, the new policy is as likely to cost money as save it.
Machiavelli said, “A prince never lacks reasons to change his mind.” But amidst all the policy options Clegg has failed to find a convincing one, and this has been his seventh failure.
It has gradually been becoming clear that Clegg has failed even to persuade the party organs to support the new policy. The Federal Policy Committee has reasserted the party’s policy of abolishing fees and the recent elections have weakened Clegg’s hand.
In the Conservative party that would never matter. In Labour, since Blair’s Clause 4 moment, it has not mattered. But in the Liberal Democrat party it still does. In approving the Coalition Agreement, the party gave its MPs the right to abstain on the vote. But it has not given any of them - including ministers - the right to go through the Aye lobby.
All the signs now are that the party organs have dug in their heels. So this is Clegg’s eighth failure.
Now Clegg has very little time before the vote and only two options left if he wants to avoid a defeat for the government on fees, a breach with Cameron and the risk of a snap election. One is to secure from Cameron a revised policy. But as time has passed, so attitudes towards the policy and the Lib Dems have hardened. Tweaks to the policy that might have been enough two months ago are not now going to be noticed. To persuade everyone that the new policy on fees really is a good thing, Clegg is going to need something dramatically more expensive and progressive, possibly foreshadowed by a policy review that would bounce implementation back a year.
Whether, if push came to shove, Cameron would face down his own party to give Clegg this is one of the mysteries of our time. Even if he thinks he can win an election now, the question remains of whether Cameron would want to. Would he not rather be talking to Clegg and sympathetic Lib Dems than his own right wing?
Clegg’s second option is to persuade his MPs to not derail the legislation in the vote next Thursday. This ought to be easy, since if they do conspire to defeat the government Cameron will be able to call an election and even yellow turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. It is certainly the opinion of virtually every political commentator. But I am not so sure.
If the Lib Dems are whipped to abstain and all the other parties vote against the government, then it would take about 25 rebels to go through the Noe lobby to deprive the government of its majority. Are there that many? I count 10 who have declared for the Noe lobby (others say 13 but I’m not convinced) and another 37 whose intention is unknown - possibly even to themselves.
For the whips, the arithmetic must look worrying, even if some Lib Dems can be pushed through the Aye lobby and there is the possibility of the Democratic Unionists riding to the rescue (all the other minor parties have declared against the rise in the cap). And this is where all the talk of “collective abstention” comes from. It is not, as they have managed to spin it, a concession from Clegg and Cable. It is a plea to the rebels. Clegg has lost control of his own destiny, and this is his ninth failure. (It also seems to be a plea that has been rejected. So far I count three rebels who have re-avowed to go through the Noe lobby, and none who have retracted.)
If Cameron plays hardball and Clegg wants to keep the Coalition alive, the only alternative to collective abstention is to counteract the votes of rebels with other Lib Dem MPs going through the Aye lobby. As well as risking a breach with his party, this has a feedback quality to it. Once it becomes clear that Clegg will line up loyalists to go through the Aye lobby, more MPs can safely rebel and the party could rapidly end up not with a three-way split but a two-way split. This could have cataclysmic consequences for Clegg and his party because the Lib Dems are, of course, already split two ways.
The split can be described in different ways. Between Orange Book and “old fashioned” liberals. Between right-wing and left-wing social liberals. Between economic and social liberals. Between those who instinctively favour coalition with Cameron and those who would prefer Labour. Between a metropolitan, Westminster elite and party grassroots. But it is clear that whatever dimension you choose, Clegg for all his power is in the minority.
If it comes to a showdown on fees, then Clegg could easily end up facing the party organs and the majority of his MPs and membership. And the last two leaders, Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell, who are both among the ultras who have already declared for the Noe lobby. And the sainted Paddy Ashdown and David Steel. Even were Clegg to win through, such a conflict would crystallise to his lasting disadvantage differences that even many Lib Dem members are only hazily aware of.
Aided by lazy reporting, all sections of the party have been extremely disciplined in tackling this emerging crisis. For example, rather than making a noise, Campbell and Kennedy have kept quiet. This is evidence that all sides understand precisely how explosive the issues are that they are dealing with. But as the damage to the brand accumulates - both to that of the party and individual MPs - the assumption that Clegg will get his way must start to deteriorate.
Clegg has always wanted to play a long game, to see out a full term in Parliament, to reap the rewards of eventual growth, to show that coalition politics works and to demonstrate once and for all that the Lib Dems are ready to govern. But he has already lost the leftish half of his electoral base to Labour in the polls and as the full shrink-the-state impact of what Osborne is doing sinks in, there are doubts as to whether he will ever get it back. Now he is trashing the brand and the resulting lack of trust fundamentally undermines every other message the party wants to get across. The AV referendum already looks a lost cause. So it seems increasingly likely that the only viable end game is, as in 1918, a coupon with the Conservatives at the next election in which the parties stand aside in marginal seats.
Such a pact is openly discussed by Conservatives but is something Lib Dems can hardly bring themselves to mention. The party could find itself trapped in the Conservative’s orbit, forever unable to reach out to a wider public.
For Clegg it’s not such a bad option. He would get to stay on as Deputy Prime Minister. But for Kennedy or Campbell it must be anathema. What, they must be asking themselves, is the point? Has the purpose of their lives simply been to entrench Osborne and his heirs in the Treasury? If that is the future, then maybe a general election now is not such a bad alternative. Since it involves certain trauma now as opposed to likely trauma later, it must be unlikely even today. But if they could strike a coupon deal with Labour, then parliamentary numbers could be maintained and at least the party would be - as they see must it - orbiting Earth rather than Skaro.
And this is Nick Clegg’s tenth failure - to have led his party, just six months after entering government, to the point where, as the Lib Dem discussion boards demonstrate, it has no choice but to consider removing him as leader.