12 Oct 2010

Lib Dem tuition fees rebellion – or not

Lib Dem high command doesn’t believe the NUS claims that there are 30 MPs lined up to vote against university reform in six weeks’ time. They hope when the vote comes they could keep Lib Dem votes against down to single figures. One of those self same rebels I spoke to thinks that’s where the numbers might end up too.

The challenge for the leadership is to get others currently thinking of rebelling to abstain. I haven’t heard yet of any Lib Dem ministers threatening to resign to vote against – they will be firmly steered towards abstention.

Although Vince Cable is expected to talk about variable loan interest rates in his Commons statement today, he may well be keeping some other concessions up his sleeve to apply pressure to backbenchers later in the process.
One determined rebel, John Leech MP, admitted to me that he was one of the three Lib Dem MPs who abstained on the original vote on whether to go into Coalition. Another was Charles Kennedy, but I’m not sure who was “the third man” (it was a man) on the night.

Although he signed the infamous NUS pledge to fight any rise in tuition fees in the election campaign, Nick Clegg actually tried to dump the party’s hard and fast opposition to tuition fees in 2009. In January 2009, the Federal Policy Committee voted by 18-5 against dropping the commitment to abolishing tuition fees – Nick Clegg was in the chair and one of the minority. But by the time of the 2009 Party Conference he decided he couldn’t win the battle and said, to cheers: “There is no question mark over the policy of the Liberal Democrats to scrap tuition fees. The only question mark is about when we can afford to scrap tuition fees.”

Talk to modernising Lib Dems and some will claim Nick Clegg ducked the battle back then. You can read chapter and verse on this saga in the new “The British General Election of 2010” by Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley (pp108-10).

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