Well here we are, in the cockpit of history. The Today programme yesterday reported that David Willetts had been yanked back from the Conservative Party conference to negotiate with Vince Cable over student fees, looking for a deal before the Browne Review delivers its report.
What kind of deal is possible? This is a crucial question not just for Liberal Democrats but for the whole country because Nick Clegg holds a powerful hand and the way he plays his cards may shape the future our universities and the role they play in this country for a generation.
The right of abstention on fees granted to the Lib Dems in the Coalition Agreement involved compromise on both sides and is completely understandable. But it put off the substantive decisions about what to do on an issue that is loaded with electoral dynamite. Now that those decisions are coming to a head, none of the options look easy.
If Clegg chooses to lead the party in abstaining, then the Conservatives’ effective majority drops to just 24. Now consider the large number of Lib Dem MPs who could choose to join Menzies Campbell to break the whip and vote against a rise in fees. Throw them in and the notional majority could melt away.
It’s enough to genuinely stop Tory whips sleeping at night. The tiniest of rebellions by his backbenchers could mean defeat for David Cameron. And not just any defeat. Defeat on a big issue, a £4 billion a year issue that would require emergency legislation to rewrite the outcome of the CSR and save the universities from bankruptcy, breaking Osborne’s deficit reduction pledges along the way. In other words, humiliation. This is Clegg’s ace, the reason why Cameron needs him on side.
But is it really possible that Clegg will lead his troops past the Aye tellers? The party has voted again and again against rises in fees, and did so again last month. At that conference, Clegg said, “The only question is over when we can afford to scrap tuition fees.” And then, of course, there’s the pledges. Fully 54 of the 57 Lib Dem MPs have signed the NUS pledge to vote against any rise in fees.
Whatever his reasoning, should Clegg now back a rise in fees it’s inevitable that he will face accusations of betrayal and broken promises. The NUS is already directing students with bitter irony to Clegg’s “Broken Promises” film from the general election.
For Clegg this could be the equivalent of George Bush’s famous decision to repudiate his promise, “Read my lips – no new taxes.” It could be the betrayal voters remember, the betrayal from which he never recovers. And lets remember, the £30,000 parents could end up spending on their children’s university education will make the loss of child benefit look like a dropped 20p.
I think Lib Dems should forget about a graduate tax as the solution. Even Vince Cable has abandoned that in favour of a “variable graduate contribution”. Yes, there are other ways of organising student finance other than fees but in the end not only do most of them not make sense, simply renaming the problem doesn’t make it go away. It just makes the renamer look shifty.
One way out is for Clegg to cut a deal with the NUS in which it releases the MPs from their pledges in return for a sufficiently progressive and inexpensive (for students) settlement. But the NUS is currently frozen out of negotiations and starting to turn its fire on Clegg. Aaron Porter, the NUS president, has been tweeting this week: “if Nick Clegg had any principles he wouldn’t need any pressure to stick to his pledge. He’d just do it!”, “read the lead story on the Observer today & then you’ll know why I’m so angry with the Lib Dems”, “we’ve been told they are planning to support £7k. So it’s time for Lib Dem members & NUS to put pressure on”, “Time to enforce the pledge!”
In any case, anything acceptable to the NUS is by definition unacceptable to the Treasury, which is determined to shift the burden on to students, and to Conservative free market-oriented thinkers.
So whichever way Clegg and Cameron turn, there are big risks. Browne has long been due to deliver his report on Monday. If he can’t make that deadline, we’ll know that Willetts’ diplomacy has failed, the deal hasn’t been done and the crisis is upon us.
William Cullerne Bown founded Research Fortnight.