The Liberal Democrats plan a mass abstention on the Commons tuition fees vote, writes our Political Editor, Gary Gibbon – but it could all still fall apart.
The Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, suffered an embarrassing ordeal in the Commons, as he declined to answer which way he would vote on Government plans to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 per year in tuition fees.
Earlier, Vince Cable – who, as the Business Secretary, will be the Cabinet Minister responsible for the tuition fees policy – admitted that he may abstain in the interests of party unity.
“If we all abstain then that is the position I am happy to go along with. There is an option that we all abstain together and we are considering that,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“My own personal instincts – partly because I am the Secretary of State responsible for universities and partly because I think the policy is right – are very much to vote for it. But we have got to vote as a group, collectively, and we are discussing how we do that.”
Channel 4 News Political Editor Gary Gibbon writes that Nick Clegg went into a two hour meeting of Liberal Democrat MPs tonight seeking a policy of “principled abstention”.
“Nick Clegg feels he has to make sure that he did everything he could to keep his MPs united,” he writes. “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.”
Nick Clegg, tuition fees and the battle to keep the Lib Dems united - Read Gary Gibbon's blog
During Deputy Prime Minister’s Question Time in the Commons, Mr Clegg was repeatedly pressed by his Labour opposite number, Harriet Harman, to say whether he would vote to support Government policy – or to uphold his party’s manifesto position opposing any increase in tuition fees.
“If you vote against, that’s the only principled position,” she said. “If you abstain, it’s a cop out, if you vote for it’s a sell out. Which is it?”
Mr Clegg did not reveal which way he intended to vote, but mounted a strong defence of Government policy – contrasting it with what he said was the lack of a policy by the Opposition.
“The proposal we are putting forward – we have a plan, they have a blank sheet of paper – is fairer for students than the system we inherited from the Labour government.”
The exchanges came as students across the country mounted a third day of protest agains the plan to raise tuition fees. In Westminster and in other cities there were clashes with police, but there was not the violence seen in previous protests.
Labour has tabled a motion for debate on the tuition fees issue tonight, but Mr Clegg will not be present for the vote, as he has left to attend the summit of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Kazakhstan.