Just as the tuition fees protests gather more pace, Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced that he may "abstain" in the key vote, to be held on 9th December.
This is not only surprising but downright absurd, and demonstrates the difficulties facing the Lib Dem leadership with a divided parliamentary party. I'm not entirely sure, but I would imagine it's unheard of for a minister to refuse to vote in support of legislation he is recommending to the House.
Labour have been quick to make political capital from this, claiming it shows Cable's indecision on the issue. They are wrong. While I find it hard to believe him entirely when he says "I am in agreement with the proposals" merely weeks after proposing an alternative graduate tax, there is little doubt that Vince has injected the findings of the Browne review with some key ideas of his own which he means to implement. Certainly, his efforts have resulted in the final proposal being significantly preferable to implementing the Browne findings in full.
His announcement, however bizarre and unexpected, instead stems from a desire to maintain party unity. In recent days a number of Lib Dem MPs have indicated they might vote against the Bill, and there is a very real risk that the parliamentary party could spilt three ways. While this would be unlikely to affect the outcome of the vote, it could be potentially disastrous for the party. A sizeable Lib Dem rebellion could also create some ill-feeling between the coalition partners, something that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are understandably anxious to avoid.
It would seem that what the leadership want is to adopt a "team approach" to abstain en masse, as permitted under the coalition agreement. Nick Clegg seems keen to keep his party together while adhering to the conditions of the CA. (Clegg admits Lib Dems may abstain in tuition fees vote, The Guardian, 26/11/10) On one level, this is utterly sensible. However, surely such a strategy should have been adopted earlier, before MPs went public with their opposition and before the controversy (predictably) deepened.
If Cable seriously believes he can persuade Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy to merely abstain, then I would suggest he is more than optimistic. He may have better luck with MPs such as Tim Farron and Simon Wright, but an agreed party position should have been determined well in advance of the key debate and any key objectors identified (and hopefully pacified). Desperately trying to keep your own MPs onside in the days leading up to a vote sends out a clear message - one which would have been best avoided. Perhaps the leadership's main failure has been its inability to keep its MPs united - if not in agreement - on this key issue.
Labour might look to exploit this apparent division, but that would be rich from a party that doesn't even have a policy on the matter. What is certain is that this issue now has the potential to damage our party's standing in the country in the same way that the Iraq War seriously damaged Labour.
If I was a Lib Dem MP, I would be asking two key questions. The first is how fair are the proposals, and are they consistent with not only Lib Dem policy but a Liberal Democrat philosophy? Already the IMF, Million+ and OBR have claimed the plans are not "progressive" and that they will have a negative impact on the social mobility Nick Clegg aims to make reality. I agree that Nick's emphasis on social mobility is the right one, but we need to adopt the right policies to achieve such an ambitious goal. If rejecting the plans at this stage and going back to the drawing board can result in a more progressive policy, taking into account the concerns of the IMF and others, then it is certainly worth considering voting against the proposals as they stand, whatever the rules on collective responsibility.
Secondly, I would be asking whether more damage might now be done by denying MPs the right to vote according to their conscience or the interests of their constituents. A united team approach may well have been the right one, but the opportunity to present a genuinely united front has long gone. Imposing a collective, rigid discipline will now be seen as top-down control freakery from people both within and outwith the party and could probably be even more damaging. On the other hand, a few rebel MPs might restore some public faith in a party that has allowed itself to become defined by an issue over which it actually has very little control.
As far as the party as a whole is concerned, we need to maintain our principled opposition to tuition fees (taking care to be realistic about the prospects of eradicating them) while not allowing it to be the defining principle of our political identity. This, admittedly, is a challenge but it is one that we need to rise to if we are to retain our credibility. Part of the problem is that for too long we have simply allowed ourselves to be seen as "the anti-fees" party and this has now created huge difficulties for Nick Clegg as he has to equate this position with the task of being a minority partner in a coalition government inheriting the unenviable task on acting on the findings of Lord Browne.
On the wider issue of Higher Education, it is vital that the debate does not become constricted around the narrow matter of tuition fees. Serious consideration has to be given to the more pertinent issue of long-term HE funding, and the value of the policy should not be defined merely by how strictly it conforms to our General Election manifesto but by how effectively it can contribute to creating social mobility and a farier, more liberal society. As far as I can see, the proposals on the table currently do not go far enough in this regard; however, the success of any new policy can only be properly judged in respect to how well it has provided for the needs of HE further down the line.
While I am proud of - and agree with - our party's historical position on tuition fees, it was a serious mistake on the part of party strategists to so closely identify itself with the issue, and a potentially catastrophic error to make such capital out of it given that in the (not unlikely) outcome of a hung parliament tuition fees could be the sticking point in coalition talks - talks in which we would almost certainly not be in a particularly strong position. It is this fatal misjudgement, not a principled rebellion, that is now conspiring to damage our party.