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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:

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