30 Nov 2010

Nick Clegg, tuition fees and the battle to keep Lib Dems united

Just been up in Trafalgar Square where a few hundred students are still protesting and some more hardened political activists are hanging around too. The police arrested someone and there was a surge towards the scene, a few things were thrown in the direction of the police – I saw bollards, fireworks and bits of wood thrown.

Down the road in Parliament, Lib Dem MPs are meeting to discuss tactics for the tuition fees vote in 2 weeks’ time. Last week, the meeting went on for 2 hours – all very rational, troubled but not antagonistic, I’m told by one who was there.

Nick Clegg feels he has to make sure that he did everything he could to keep his MPs united. So he is giving the “let’s all abstain together” strategy his best try. But when he looks at the coverage he may think he hoisted a flag and it’s come down riddled with bullets. One MP said Nick Clegg was in danger of putting party unity above principle or sanity.

He tried “principled abstention” once before when he marched his MPs out of the chamber in March 2008 over the issue of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. He got pretty well pelted with ridicule on that occasion by people outside the parliamentary party and some close to him think he may spot that he’s walking into the same situation again with a planned mass abstention on tuition fees … this is the strategy Nick Clegg is pushing right now but it might not be in 24 hours.

Tories are relaxed whatever happens on the Lib Dem benches, confident the measure gets through.

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