30 Nov 2010

Student fees: Cable may abstain from vote

A senior Lib Dem tells Gary Gibbon that getting its MPs in line over the tuition fees vote is like “herding frogs”, as Business Secretary Vince Cable says he may abstain and students protest again.

Vince Cable may abstain from vote on student fees (Reuters)

The Lib Dem Cabinet Minister said he was prepared to take the unprecedented step of not backing his own proposals for the sake of party unity.

Mr Cable has said he will abstain in a Commons vote on the Government’s policy on tuition fees if that is what fellow Liberal Democrat MPs decide to do as a group.

His comments came as students staged a third protest against tuition fees.

The Liberal Democrats have come under intense criticism from student leaders for abandoning General Election pledges to oppose rises in fees – and eventually to scrap them.

The Coalition Agreement signed by both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems when they took office together gave the junior partners the right to abstain if there was a vote to raise tuition fees.

Like herding frogs

"Herding frogs into a wheel barrow" is how one senior Lib Dem describes trying to get Lib Dem MPs in line.

The latest attempt by Lib Dem high command to get their party into some sort of order on tuition fees proves the point. The Business Secretary Vince Cable has just confirmed that he and his ministerial colleagues plan to lead a collective abstention when the critical vote comes on raising tuition fees in two weeks' time.

Yes, that's the Business Secretary, responsible for universities, the man who drafted the government's reforms on Higher Education, abstaining on his own measure. Embarrassing? Yes. But the Lib Dem leadership has decided it could be worse.

Read more on tuition fees: getting Lib Dems in line like 'herding frogs'

Mr Cable insisted that he backed his own policy but was willing to sit out the vote – due before Christmas – to ensure the party took a united approach.

“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.

We are a disciplined party, we work together. Vince Cable

“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.

“My position is somewhat different but I am willing to go along with my colleagues.

“We are a disciplined party, we work together. We are clearly going through a difficult period over this issue and we want to support each other.”

Nick Clegg’s stance

In the Commons Nick Clegg mounted a staunch defence of the Government’s stance on tuition fees but refused to confirm whether he would vote in support of the policy.

The Deputy Prime Minister faced repeated questioning on the issue.

Mr Clegg told MPs “all graduates will pay less per month” under the Government’s proposals than under the regime inherited from Labour.

But he refused to be drawn on what his position would be during his regular session of questions in the Commons.