The latest twist in the Lib Dem tuition fee saga is that Business Secretary Vince Cable has said that he is considering abstaining over a Commons vote on the Coalition’s plans to raise the cap on university tuition fees from a little over £3,000 to £9,000. The plans have already proven somewhat unpopular with young people, which has to be a concern for the party – many of their seats, including Nick Clegg’s own constituency of Sheffield Hallam, are in areas densely populated with students.
The Coalition Agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats allows the junior party to abstain from any vote on tuition fees, and it would appear that senior party figures are attempting to exercise this option. As I’ve said previously, this stance still falls short of the pre-election pledge signed by all 57 Lib Dem MPs, which stated that they would vote against any motion to raise student fees.
Nonetheless, Cable has said that he may abstain from the vote along with the rest of his party, although he personally supports the proposals:
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 … 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.
It seems that unity amongst the Liberal Democrats is the key priority for the party when approaching the vote. However the “we’re all out of this together” stance of Cable is unlikely to placate MPs like former leaders Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell, who have already stated that they will vote against the bill. Other Lib Dem MPs to have publicly indicated an intention to vote against include
Cardiff Central’s Jenny Willott, perhaps with one eye on the student voters in her constituency. It is not yet clear whether her position will change following the Welsh Assembly’s decision yesterday not to raise tuition fees for Welsh students. (See Postscript #2)
Unlike Nick Clegg, who has recently taken to criticising opponents of his policy by implying that they haven’t understood it properly – because, of course, the Deputy Prime Minister could not possibly be wrong – Cable at least seems to have recognised the genuine anger felt towards the Liberal Democrats on fees and is trying to mediate between the two wings of his party: those who continue to oppose fee rises on principle, and those who have “gone native” and endorse the government’s proposals in full. Cable himself tends towards the latter wing, as is obvious from the above quote, but at least he has acknowledged the other side and is trying to negotiate with them.
Despite all this, there is an important constitutional point here. Ordinarily, if a government minister were forced to introduce legislation that he could not personally endorse, he would be expected to resign. We know that Cable claims to support the plans, but if he cannot bring himself to vote for them – as the minister responsible for universities, remember – how does he reconcile his beliefs with his actions? And what does that imply for his suitability for continuing as Business Secretary?
A case could be made that, as this is a coalition government, the rules are slightly different. The government has mostly avoided the embarrassment of having ministers not support their own legislation by assigning departments carefully – for instance, there are Liberal Democrat ministers in charge of constitutional reform (Clegg) and climate change (Chris Huhne), two traditionally strong Lib Dem interests. But in Cable’s case, there is a conflict – so what does he do?
Undoubtedly Vince Cable is one of the Coalition’s greatest assets, as one of the most talented and capable politicians on the government’s front bench. Some pre-election polls rated him as the public’s favourite to become Chancellor of the Exchequer, fighting it out with Alistair Darling – George Osborne was typically well behind. But there is a strong possibility that he might be constitutionally required to resign, if he does not vote in favour of a tuition fee rise. The next few weeks will be very interesting for the Lib Dems, and Vince Cable in particular.
(Postscript: Anthony Wells over at UK Polling Report posted yesterday details of a voting intention poll amongst students – Liberal Democrat voting intention stands at 15%, 30 points down on their score in May [45%]. The Conservatives have increased from 21% to 26%, and Labour from 24% to 42%. Perhaps Lib Dems in university constituencies should be worried.)
(Postscript #2: I’ve been told that Jenny Willott claims to have been misquoted, and has not made any firm commitment regarding the vote on tuition fees.)