The Lib Dems leadership have shown great ingenuity but no credibility in coming up for reasons why they made scrapping tuition fees for students a key election campaign pledge, then broke it the moment there was a chance of getting into government – and instead backed tripling the level of tuition fees.
We know from leaked party documents that Treasury Minister Danny Alexander MP and Nick Clegg were already planning to drop the policy two months before they made it a key pledge in their election campaign.
Alexander as a Treasury minister went on to support privatisation of forests in England and Wales and then campaign against it in Scotland. Alexander explained, as if talking to very small and very easily tricked children, that this was due to the “devolved nature of British politics”. Utter hypocrisy. Devolution does not allow the same politician to reverse their views as they cross the border.
So presumably the fact that the Lib Dems made a high profile campaign promise which they then broke by failing to make it a condition of joining any coalition government is due to the hypocritical, dishonest, nature of British politics? No, it’s not. There are some honest people in politics. Nick Clegg and some of his MPs are apparently not among them – with Norman Baker MP one of the honourable exceptions.
The latest excuse which every Lib Dem MP is making in TV interviews is that this was a pledge made if the Lib Dems formed a single party government. The identical reply given by each shows this ingenious reply comes from the party leader’s office. The trouble is it’s a lie – everyone, the Lib Dems most definitely included, knew the Lib Dems could not possibly form a single party government. So they were cynically lying to the electorate.
Some Lib Dem spokespeople squirm and wriggle like would-be Houdinis, talking of the positive aspects of the new Coalition policy. That completely misses the point. To put any policy in your manifesto and then reverse it on being elected is bad enough, but to do so with a policy which you made a high profile plank of your campaign is a betrayal of the people who voted for you, many of whom may have been persuaded to do so on that specific policy.
Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins has attempted to defend this betrayal on the grounds that parties break their manifesto pledges all the time. This does happen and is wrong – that hardly justifies it.
Jenkins argues that to criticise the Lib Dems on this issue is to make the supposedly “ludicrous” claim that there are two types of campaign pledges. There are many though. There are those in the small print of the manifesto ; there are the ones that are never even discussed or mentioned except by small parties and independents (like PFIs/PPPs) and there are the high profile policies that a party makes a key part of it’s manifesto. The tuition fees pledge was the third kind – and even as it was being made the party leaders were discussing binning it. After making that pledge it should have been a condition of joining any coalition.
Vince Cable has said that there was no promise to keep tuition fees. You could have fooled me. Clegg claimed during the election that he was utterly opposed to tuition fees and he and many of his MPS signed a Pledge to vote them down. A pledge, in case you’ve forgotten Vince, is a very public and solemn promise – an oath. You can still read it as one of the party’s key education policies on their website.
Nick Clegg’s credibility is gone and Cable’s is fading. Clegg is only still leader because his rivals and opponents in the party are waiting for him to absorb the backlash against his blatant disregard for his own voters before they make their move. Whether the Lib Dems survive as a serious political party will depend on how many Lib Dem MPs defy Nick Clegg by voting against tuition fees in parliament.