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.


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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6 reader comments

  1. Ceej1979 says:

    Hmm, it all depends on whether Davis’ move is one of principle, or one of a “let’s bring down the coalition” rebellion.

    I’d have thought he would normally be in favour of such a policy. By normally, I mean, if he was in a centre right conservative government.

    I have a feeling, once the tory back benches see Davis making a stand, they might follow him.

    Problem with the tories, as I’ve said hundreds of times over the decades is thus.

    Labour have a few generals, and lots of soldiers. There are a few squabbles, but they all fall into line on votes.

    The Conservative Party is just 20’000 Generals. By that I mean, activists, councillors, MPs, cabinet ministers. They all know best…….

  2. Philip Edwards says:


    The LibDems “rebel”?……You’re having a laugh aren’t you?

    They sold themselves for a taste of power, just as did New Labour. They will suffer the same fate and they will deserve it. The Tories of course are what they have always been, misery-making Plastic Yanks with an injection of Gradgrind and Bounderby.

    The “rebellion” will fizzle out like everything else the LibDems do……including what passes for their “conscience.” They could learn something from the students who have at least stood their ground. But they won’t.

  3. TGRWorzel says:

    What a fiasco…

    As I’ve said before, it could have been avoided if the coalition agreement was put to the public, in a referendum perhaps, before the new Government really got down to business..

    In the event of a “No” vote in the referendum, we’d have simply had to have another General election…

    That process may not have been ideal, but the referendum could have been organised inside a week if we wanted to, and it would have been much better than the fiasco we’ve got at the moment, with LibDem MP’s being pulled in all sorts of directions, until they split wide open…

  4. Steve Willis says:

    I admire Aye or No as a principled stance.

    To abstain is cowardice.

  5. Saltaire Sam says:

    I agree with Steve Willis. What are people saying when they abstain – I have no view on the matter? Err, I’m not sure? If so, why are they MPs?

    Abstaining is putting party politics before what is right for the country and any MPs who abstain should face recall by their consituency.

    The lib dems have put themselves in a corner from which they are likely to face even more abuse and ultimately loss of votes.

    It is shocking for an old leftie like me, who disagrees with almost every tory policy, to say, but the Conservative party seems to be the only one that will stand up for what it believes.

    So the ‘we’ll advocate whatever the opinion polls/Daily Mail say’ labour party, and the ‘when we said we were on the side of the poor we lied’ lib dems, have left an open field for the party of wealth and privilege to give more to their pals at the expense of the poorest.

    Let’s hope our newly politicised students can shake things up in the long term.

  6. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    In this one I too agree with Steve and Sam. Hovering on both sides of the fence, just in case the majority go the other way is a show of cowardice. However much I believe in compromise to solve issues, a definite decision must be made by all able to do so.

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