PMQs: Albatross! Albatross! Come and get your lovely Albatross!

Rarely, both the Prime Minister and the Opposition leader had reason to be absent from Prime Minister’s Questions today. So it was dear Harriet versus the Cleggster.

As an added twist, it turned into a “Higher Education Special”, in part spurred by the student demonstrations outside parliament as the session was unfolding. There were no less than ten questions on higher education. My, the Labour whips had been busy. Sadly this meant less time for the constituency issues often raised by MPs.

I witnessed the session live via Twitter, where Nick Clegg received a rather jaundiced reception – to put it mildly. When I look back on the video, it seems to me that Nick Clegg did a remarkably good job of what was probably the most difficult parliamentary session of his career. Indeed, he looked terrified beforehand, as Northern Irish questions overan.

Harman started by asking how Clegg’s April pledge to end university tuition fees was going.
Nick Clegg replied that:

..we have stuck to our wider ambition to make sure that going to university is done in a progressive way, so that people who are currently discouraged from going to university—bright people from poor backgrounds, who are discouraged by the system that we inherited from the right hon. and learned Lady’s Government—are able to do so. That is why our policy is more progressive than hers.

Harman said he hoped he’d tell that to the protestors outside and quoted him saying that fees of £7000 would be a “disaster” – so how would he describe fees of £9,000?

Nick Clegg said that there was a consensus that graduates should pay some contribution and added:
The proposals that we have put forward will mean that those who earn the least will pay much less than they do at the moment—while those who earn the most will pay over the odds to provide a subsidy to allow people from poor backgrounds to go to university—and will, for the first time, end the discrimination against the 40% of people in our universities who are part-time students, who were so shamefully treated by her Government.

Harman, rightly, said that none of the Labour party agree with fees of £9000 a year. I think Harman was spot on when she said that this is not about the deficit. It will be cleared by the time the new tuition fees scheme starts. It’s about the proportion of graduate (what she described wrongly as “student”) funding versus public funding. Clegg was rather disingenuous when he referred to a consensus that graduates should pay “some” contribution. The government plans implies 100% graduate funding in some cases and 80-90% graduate funding in many cases. That’s all but getting rid of public funding.

Harman threw an attempted joke in: “We all know what it is like, Mr Speaker. You are at Freshers’ week. You meet up with a dodgy bloke and you do things that you regret. Is not the truth of it that the Deputy Prime Minister has been led astray by the Tories?”
We all know what that is like do we, Hattie? Ummmm let me think. I didn’t actually meet any dodgy blokes in Freshers’ Week, personally. I spent most of my entire year at University trying to find a dodgy woman but, sadly, failed.

Clegg then had an excellent riposte to Harman’s general thrust:

I know that the right hon. and learned Lady now thinks that she can reposition the Labour party as the champion of students, but let us remember the Labour party’s record: against tuition fees in 1997, but introduced them a few months later; against top-up fees in the manifesto in 2001, then introduced top-up fees. Then Labour set up the Browne review, which it is now trashing, and now the Labour party has a policy to tax graduates that half the Front-Bench team does not even believe in. Maybe she will go out to the students who are protesting outside now and explain what on earth her policy is.

All in all, I thought Clegg did an excellent job of outlining the fairness of the coalition’s plan while obviously being on the back foot, due to going back on the promise.

But an emailer to BBC Live called Robert Taylor put it very well: “Nick Clegg is not breaking his promise to the electorate regarding tuition fees; the LibDems did NOT win the election – had they done so they would not have increased the fees thereby keeping their promise.”

Quite frankly, whatever Nick Clegg does or says on this topic, people will always associate him and the Liberal Democrats with “breaking their promise on tuition fees”.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face that it was a daft promise to make in the first place, that Labour introduced tuition fees and increased them, that politics is the art of the possible, that the government plan is progressive and (as John Hemming has ingeniously put it) “a graduate tax in all but name”.

But, whatever we do or say, still the Tuition Fees Albatross will remain around our necks and that of Nick Clegg in particular for at least a generation. So we need to get used to that.

And for Monty Python fans: no, it doesn’t come with any wafers.

The Albatross sketch from Monty Python:
Also available on YouTube here.

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44 Comments

  • I see that Cameron has finally let the cat out the bag about why tuition fees are being raised.

    He stated to an audience of Chinese uni students that Increased fees would give English universities like Oxford, Cambridge, London Imperial, University College London, Manchester, Exeter and Newcastle the resources they needed to maintain standards and compete with institutions in America, India and China.

    He added: “We won’t go on increasing so fast the fees of the overseas students.

    “In the past, we have pushed up the fees on overseas students as a way of keeping them down for domestic students. Yes, foreign students will still pay a significant amount of money, but we should be able to bring that growth under control.”

    So it appears that we have to tighten our belts to make it cheaper for foreign students to study here – I’m sure our poorer domestic students will be glad to hear what their sacrifice is all about.

  • Fairness of coalition plan? and what planet do you live on. Clegg has reneged on almost everything he said prior to the election. Clegg did not have an “excellent riposte” he was grasping at straws, he is a turncoat pure and simple and someone who has brought the LibDems into disrepute. I am ashamed to now admit that I voted for him. Never ever again.

  • Sorry to Robert Taylor but Clegg is breaking his promise due to the pledge he personally signed.

    What struck me, yet again, about PMQ’s is the fact that Clegg did not answer the questions. He was (rightly) critical of this tactic before the election and promised us a new politics. He failed on two occaisions to give the percentage the teaching grant would be cut by. It is crucial to the debate and to leave it unanswered was shameful.

    He just cannot keep coming back to what Labour would do, it’s not their job. Their job is to hold the Government to account. He can quite rightly bring up Labour betrayals of the past. But in doing so he simply draws attention to the Lib Dem betrayals of today.

    The real problem is that he should have realised early on that the spin chosen to excuse breaking the pledge (i.e. the economic situation had changed) was not working and moved on. Saying we don’t like this but it’s the price of coalition would be better. As you say the charge that it’s to do with the defecit is a total red herring. If the Government believes in it’s own policies this will have virtually no effect on the defecit which will be almost cleared before a penny is recouped.

    Sticking to claiming they are no worse than Labour will prove to be an electoral disaster. Some of us voted Lib Dem to get away from the betrayal of New Labour not to match it.

    As for Harmans joke I actually laughed out loud while sneaking a listen at work. Perhaps you should have looked harder during freshers week…..

  • Actually the emailer to BBC Live got it wrong. Clegg would clearly be breaking his promise by voting for the increase in tuition fees. Whether or not the Lib Dems won the election is irrelevant. This was a personal pledge – and if he votes for the increase, it was a lie.

  • George W. Potter 10th Nov '10 - 9:17pm

    “But, whatever we do or say, still the Tuition Fees Albatross will remain around our necks and that of Nick Clegg in particular for at least a generation. So we need to get used to that.”

    Nope. All we need to do is vote out the party leadership in the 2015 spring conference.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 10th Nov '10 - 9:20pm

    “But an emailer to BBC Live called Robert Taylor put it very well: “Nick Clegg is not breaking his promise to the electorate regarding tuition fees; the LibDems did NOT win the election – had they done so they would not have increased the fees thereby keeping their promise.””

    Paul, you must know that’s quite wrong, because precisely that point has been discussed ad nauseam.

    As Nigel says, this was not a manifesto pledge, which can be forgotten because the Lib Dems did not win a majority. It was a pledge made by candidates – from a number of parties – to vote against a particular measure if they were elected. They were elected, so clearly they are still bound by that promise, whether in government, coalition or opposition.

  • @George W. Potter
    By 2015 how much more damage will be done to the previous reputation of the Lib Dems as a party of principle and honesty.

  • Nick Clegg does not realise how much people are angry at him ,i do not condone the violence today but i fully back the
    students .What you better hope does not happen is all the people who are affected with these cuts,ie public sector workers,housing benefit families ,students ,pensioners all march on LONDON FOR THE BIGGEST ANTI TORY/LIB DEM protest of all time.but it has to be non violent as you don,t beat CLEGG/CAMERON wiyh violence.
    Andrew Edinburgh

  • .
    There was an unbelievable question at PMQs from Tom Greatrix who asked Nick Clegg if he could he explain to the house why his Chief Secretary to the Treasury is pictured on the Scottish Lib Dem website leading the campaign against selling off forestry in Scotland, at the same time as he’s proposing it in England.

    I couldn’t believe this was true, so I googled to check the story. The Treasury have indeed announced plans to sell off forestry in England. And Danny Alexander is pictured on the Scottish Lib Dem website campaigning against (in his own words), the “back-door privatisation of our forests.”

    You couldn’t make this stuff up!

  • .
    Another question came from Andrew Stephenson, Conservative MP for Pendlebury.

    Paraphrased: Is the Deputy PM aware that as a response to the CSR, Pendlebury Council announced a wage cut of 27%. In contrast, the Chief Constable of Lancashire Police has started a 90 day consultation on making all of Lancashire’s PCSOs redundant. Does the Deputy PM think the Chief Constable should think again?

    Presumably, the Chief Constable has a choice between making redundant a mixture of Police Officers, PCSOs and support staff – OR getting rid of PCSOs altogether and retaining other staff. He’s obviously chosen to dispense with PCSOs.

    What does this Conservative MP expect if the coalition is slashing budgets?

  • Leviticus18_23 10th Nov '10 - 11:16pm

    I don’t think Nick Clegg cares.

    He got a seat at the big boys table. And all the perks that go with it. He’s probably already lined up his next job.

    He sold his party and the voters out to further his career.

    It’ll be more than 60 years before the liberals get another chance.

  • Today was a low point. I thought Nick struggled today. I have been critical of him but felt sorry for him today. Very little back up for him from LD or Tory MPs who usually tweet during PMQs.His gaffe on prisoner voting fortunately happened on a busy news day otherwise we would all be hearing about another long standing Lib Dem policy he disagrees with. Nick isn’t going to withstand 41/2 more years of this surely.

  • TheContinentalOp 10th Nov '10 - 11:46pm

    After today I think the Dead Parrot sketch would have been more apt.

  • @RichardSM

    The Alexander position is not that unbelievable. We had Jo Swinson extolling the virtues of the new tuition fees system. Even though she would campaign against her constituents in Scotland facing the same fees.

  • “Nick Clegg said that there was a consensus that graduates should pay some contribution ”

    The ‘concensus’ is not universal outsider the House. There is no obvious evidence that bringing in the fees will ease the nation’s finances. The bureaucracy of the repayment process could be avoided if we simply restored payment from the exchequer – sourced including taxing previous graduates such as myself.

  • The two parties on this side of the House have one policy; the Labour party has two policies.

    Note – the two parties – on this side have one policy

    Well that’s news to me……or maybe not……

  • Please note that when a PM or DPM stands up to answer questions in the House, he or she is speaking not for his or her party, but for the Government, whose policy, in a coalition government, may be quite distinct from that of any of the parties whose members sit on the Government benches.

    The reverse is not the case; when the leader or deputy leader of the Opposition stands up in the House, he or she speaks for his or her party.

    A lot of the confusion, among the public, the press, and indeed both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, arises from not realizing that the Government is neither the sum nor the difference of the two parties, but a third entity with its own interests and its own agenda. Neither Cameron nor Clegg are, at this moment, speaking for their parties (though occasionally they may be speaking *to* their parties); rather, they speak for this strange new creature born on May 11, 2010, with some of the features of both of its parents, but with a personality all its own.

  • Terry Smith 11th Nov '10 - 8:07am

    You can treat the education tax as an albatross as much as you like.

    But it’s not an isolated one-off. It’s merely an example of a leader who cares nothing for his party or the people that voted for him.

    He didn’t give the impression he was behind these measures. He clearly stated it. ‘two parties, one policy’.

  • @ Matt. Maybe NC should listen to the thousands of ordinary working people, and students, demonstrating across the country. We’re not stupid, we know we’ve been sold out. Whichever commenter suggested getting rid of party leadership in 2015 was spot on.

  • Charles Knight 11th Nov '10 - 9:47am

    “@David – Clearly that is constitutionally the case, but NC could do more to make it clear that he is setting out the government’s position, which may not be the LD position but they’ve for whatever reason of political tactics or powerlessness adopted it, rather than giving the impression that he’s fully behind it.”

    That’s a very nuanced position to try and get across to the public, I think all most will hear is “We were only following orders”. Regardless of if you support the position that the LDs have taken, the public perception of them is now as mini-tories and it’s going to be really hard for them to campaign on the doorstep in the next decade or so without people throwing it back at them. Trying to explain the difference between party policy and their actions as part of the Govt. is going to be a waste of time with most people.

  • @David
    Whilst I agree with you that the respondent at PMQ’s represents the Government, I would disagree about the leader of the opposition. Constitutionally, (in that wonderful unwritten document!) theyu have a duty to hold the Government of the day to account. Therefore it is proper for the leader of the opposition (or those standing in for them) to ask questions such “Whilst there is some sympathy on this side of the house for ……… how would the Right Honourable…. respond to those who…….”

    A bit pedantic I know but it is a crucial feature of our democracy that Blair, Brown and now Cameron and Clegg either fail to understand or have deliberately decided to ignore. We must return to answering the question. I’m all for a bit of opposition bashing afterwards as it does add to the theatre, but it seems a bit pathetic when the question is ignorde. Governments make policy, oppositions hold Governments to account. Int he words of the Merecat “Simples!”.

    Two final points:

    1. Regarding policy, he did actually state it was party policy not Government policy.
    2. When asked to respond to statements made personally I’m afraid every member of the house is personally responsible for claim, promises or statements they have made. An honest man would have stated that their personal position could not be supported by the coalition Government (although that would still not allow his personal integrity to remain if he does not honour his pledge), instead he just keeps ducking the question.

  • Clegg should have known better than sign off any pledge before an election. I never believed
    it was deliverable although obviously thousands of young people did including my three who
    voted for him but never again. To describe as fair after trebling the fees and later debt is an abuse of language,
    even by the abysmal standards of politicians. They’re not going to move on it anf that’s it and I
    hope we’re all grown up enough to take what’ever’s coming. Hang seperately or together makes no
    difference.

  • I thought that Clegg v Harman was a draw, as Harman had no sharp point to make about tuition fees, but rather just tried to embarrass Clegg about his U-turn. But overall I thought Clegg was pretty ineffectual, avoiding difficult questions, something he has always done.

    However, I do agree with the poster, that, it seems that Coalition’s policy is an improvement on the current system, if not the best possible solution achievable, and Clegg’s mistake was to sign the ‘no increase in tuition fees’ pledge in the first place.

  • Maybe we need to seriously consider having an amicable split in the party? With AV on the horizon we could look to having two centrist parties who could work together most of the time but go their separate ways on matters of principle.

    As a party we are looking two ways and appealing to two different audiences. On the one hand we are a rural and suburban party with deep roots in parts of the South and South West, a party that is comfortable with commerce, agriculture and industry but is aware of our wide social responsibilities: the Methodists at prayer if you like. On the other hand we are an urban party with a strong radical edge: very aware of the deficiencies of neo-liberalism and of the deadening hand of municipal socialism.

    Instead of being caught in the middle we should develop the new politics to make clear which way we face.

  • Paul, I take this opportunity to say I always enjoy your articles.
    On this particular thread, regarding the ALBATROSS around our necks: you are no doubt right about public perception of a broken promise; but perhaps we can mitigate it in our reaction.

    First admit as Nick has now that it was a regrettable mistake to sign that pledge.
    Second, make more than a passing reference to the great new equality for part-time students.
    Third, put that £9000 top figure into perspective. Many graduates from expensive universities will go on to buy a car for that sort of sum; how does the value of a car stack up against the advantages of a good degree? And then they will buy a house for around £100,000 without regarding it as an intolerable debt.

    As a Birkbeck graduate who had to pay upfront on a junior income I can’t really see what all the fuss is about,………except for that silly pledge.
    Elizabeth.

  • Also worth pointing out that HEPI have just gone public with what has been the most-discussed issue in HE policy circles this week – the model used to evidence the fees policy is, er, wrong.

    So, on top of everything else, the policy can’t actually work and may, in fact, be more costly than the current system because it badly overestimates likely returns. If you stick with it, you’ll almost certainly have to up fees very shortly. Sorry, mpg, but I can’t see how that’s better than the current system.

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=414183&c=1

  • Anthony Aloysius St 11th Nov '10 - 11:22am

    “If you stick with it, you’ll almost certainly have to up fees very shortly.”

    Or, rather, change the repayment scheme so that annual repayments are larger and/or people continue repaying for a longer period than 30 years. In which case it probably won’t be as progressive as the current proposals.

  • AlexKN.
    “His gaffe on prisoner voting fortunately happened on a busy news day otherwise we would all be hearing about another long standing Lib Dem policy he disagrees with.”
    Tom Harris has picked it up.

  • He regrets signing the pledge, but not breaking the promise.

    Says it all, really.

  • @elizabeth

    How very blase of you. The chances of graduates buying a car for £9k will be slimmer if they are paying of £27k and as to being able to buy a property for £100k.
    a) not all graduates earn a lareg salary. as a teacher i can tell you that £9k is way beyond what i could spend on a car.
    b) maybe in some places its possible to buy a property for £100k but I am a public servant living in London. If you could point me in the direction of such a property I’d be very grateful. I suppose I could move out but then if other’s followed suit the largest city in Europe would be without teachers, nurses, firefighters……….

  • David Wright 11th Nov '10 - 2:10pm

    I do not understand how Nick can claim that the two Coalition parties have one policy; it remains Lib Dem policy to abolish tuition fees – though we can’t at the moment because we don’t have a majority in Parliament.

    But at the end of the day, the issue isn’t about policy or economics or even whether Labour broke their pledges too (as they did): it’s about the honour and integrity of our MPs, and through them, of the Party. All who made personal pledges to vote against any increase in fees must do so. We expect other parties’ MPs to break their word: ours must not, or we are no better than the rest, despite claiming that we were.

  • I don’t know which PMQs Paul Walter was looking at yesterday but the performance by Nick Clegg that I saw was an embarrassment. Unsure, badly briefed, inconfident and evasive. But then, what can you expect, when someone is elevated way beyond his pay grade? There used to be a theatre director who, during rehearsals, would go round asking the actors ‘Have they found you out yet? Have they found you out?’ Well, the public have certainly found Clegg out! All the dictionaries that I have consulted reveal that the only pledge that can be redeemed is one that is given to a pawn shop. Otherwise a pledge is a true and solemn promise that cannot be rescinded when circumstances become inconvenient. I hope that Orange Tory MPs bear this in mind when they vote to increase tuition fees to the highest level in the industrialised world.

  • Mike(The Labour one) 11th Nov '10 - 7:03pm

    http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/tuition-fees-a-better-deal-for-the-rich/4960

    You’ve managed to make the Browne plan worse. And stop talking of a ‘perceived’ broken promise as if it’s a big misunderstanding for Christ’s sake.

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