There is speculation in The Times today that senior Liberal Democrat members of the government are preparing to abstain on the tuition fees vote in order to be seen to be sticking to their pre-election pledge to students.
Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are preparing to abstain from the pivotal Commons vote on increasing tuition fees, putting the policy on a knife-edge. Liberal Democrat ministers are discussing plans to abstain together, alongside most of their backbenchers, as the best way to hold the party together. A final decision has not been taken but senior Lib Dems indicated that this was the likely outcome, leaving a hardcore of just over a dozen Lib Dem rebels voting against.
Looking at the numbers this may still give the Tories sufficient votes to get the Bill through the Commons, but at what price to Clegg’s own credibility… or that of the coalition?
Ever since the Browne Report was published senior Lib Dems have argued that they will vote for the changes because they are ‘fair’ and because it is the right thing to do. Are they now going to admit that they are abstaining from doing the right thing because of the fear of electoral liability? Having pledged not to vote for increases… and then spent a couple of months wandering the TV studios arguing for the increases… sitting on their hands will be portrayed as inconsistent and weak. Clegg’s enemies, one of the fastest growing groups in the country, will constantly replay comments from Cable, Clegg and other senior Lib Dems saying how much they supported the changes… which they had not been able to bring themselves to support.
The other issue will be the opening up of the mistrust the Tories have for their ‘partners’ who will have ratted them out at the first serious test of the coalition. It will be particularly galling for Tories who may have antipated ministerial roles and have been by-passed to allow such a high percentage of Lib Dems to be accommodated, to then see them abstain on a key aspect of the legislative programme. The other thing it would do would be to turn the spotlight off the Lib Dems and transfer the bile directly on to the Tories who have been content to sit back and allow their partners to take the flack over their pledges.
Personally, I can’t see it happening. Clegg and co. have made their bed and now they are going to have to lie in it.