6 Dec 2010

Tuition fees: Decision time looms for the Lib Dems

The Lib Dems’ short-lived strategy of seeing if all Lib Dem MPs would like to take part in a mass abstention in Thursday’s vote on tuition fees will be formally buried by Nick Clegg at tomorrow night’s meeting of the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party.

But what replaces it? The leadership is not decided on whether it will allow Minsters below Cabinet level to abstain AND keep their jobs, a constitutional innovation which some argue is open to them because of the loose wording of the Coalition Agreement.

Some are arguing very loudly that that approach is madness and an insult to the Ministers who back the policy their own colleagues devised. And feeding into these deliberations is the question: “How low do we want to see our majority¬† slip?”

There are, as things stand, two Lib MPs potentially absent – Chris Huhne could be still in Mexico (but supports the policy), Robert Smith is away too. I do not get the impression there are any ministerial resignations on the way – though the names that get talked about are Steve Webb, Norman Baker and Lynne Featherstone. A couple of unpaid parliamentary aides, PPSs, might jump.

The Government will win but both government whipping operations – Tory and Lib Dem – don’t like it when numbers get tight and surprises can throw them – like former Tory leadership contender David Davis, who the NUS is saying will back their cause and vote against the Coalition measure.

David Davis, who’s holed up at home with ‘flu, just told me it shouldn’t have surprised anyone as he’s always opposed tuition fees on grounds that he thinks they hinder social mobility. He says he hasn’t been in touch with any other Tory would-be rebels and thinks it “perfectly possible I could be on my own” in terms of Tories who rebel on Thursday.

What most helps whips push people through the Government lobby is when you can say it is going to bring the House/Government down. That option isn’t realistically open to the whips and their powers of patronage are reduced when there aren’t so many jobs to go around in a Coalition, so they struggle.

They struggle less in the Lords, they expect, because so many Peers – Lib Dems included – are linked to university establishments, who themselves are backing the reforms as the only thing on offer that will plug the gap left by Government cuts.

UPDATE:

I get the impression that what Norman Baker and a couple of other Ministers are doing is waiting to see if they will be allowed to abstain and keep their ministerial jobs. If Nick Clegg decides to grant them that indulgence they will grab it. If he doesn’t, they might well vote “yes” and slip back quietly into the ministerial deskchair.

My guess is that Nick Clegg has decided already that he is inclined to give them the indulgence and doesn’t want to announce it in case it encourages a stampede of Ministers to the abstention door.

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