Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Will this be our "Iraq moment"?

I'm asking the question the media have been asking all week: will the tuition fees vote prove to be the Liberal Democrats' "Iraq moment"?

Creating tension and fuelling misunderstanding is often the preserve of the popular press, but I would have expected something different from the BBC. Something less inflammatory, perhaps?

Whatever can be said about tomorrow's vote on increasing tuition fees and its potential ramifications (and a great deal has) comparing it to Iraq is hardly responsible journalism. As far as I am aware no Liberal Democrat MP is advocating a barely legal war, constantly changing his arguments for the basis for invading a foreign state, misleading parliament with "dodgy" evidence or putting at risk the lives of our troops and world security in order to further our friendship with the US President. So - no - this will not be an "Iraq moment".

If anyone wishes to draw comparisons with the Labour government, this could be our "Lisbon Treaty" moment. Remember when Labour promised in their manifesto a referendum on the EU constitution, and then failed to deliver what the public apparently wanted when Brown signed the Lisbon Treaty. I can understand that similar criticisms could be levelled at some MPs within our party who go back on the pledges they made just a few months ago. There will inevitably be anger if, as expected, the government wins the vote tomorrow. But to suggest this is likely to be an "Iraq moment" is overstating it more than slightly.

I remain diametrically opposed to increasing HE tuition fees. I will not change my mind, unless I see irrefutable evidence that increasing fees will actually lead to a more inclusive education system. However, I am convinced that signing the pledge was unnecessary and tactically naive. It was not "grown-up politics" but cynical populism. What the pledge actually did was to undermine any future Lib Dem position in which we would be able to continue to assert our political opposition to fees on principle while moderating Tory policy in government. Unfortunately, it's not a credible thing for us to say "Look, we don't like fees, but they're here and we have to work with the Browne Review. We still want to eradicate fees in the long-term but in the short term we're using our position in government to make this Tory policy as fair as possible." Our election strategy means that we will not be held accountable by the public for how well we moderate the excesses of Conservative policy, but for whether our MPs honour their election pledges.

There are student groups who are urging protesters to "send a message to Clegg". Perhaps while they're at it, they'll send a message to party strategists not to make irresponsible pledges which will inevitably cause difficulties for MPs further down the line.

I see that three Tories, including David Davis, have also indicated they will vote against the rise in tuition fees tomorrow. Strangely, there haven't been the same pressures on them to conform to the wishes of their party leadership, or to respect collective responsibility. They haven't been grilled by a BBC correspondant anxious to confirm the existence of a crisis within their party. Neither has Cameron felt the need to hold an urgent meeting of his parliamentary party, or call a press conference to confirm his ministers are united. Just a thought, but what does this say about the difference in media attitudes towards the respective coalition partners, or about the leaderships of the respective parties?

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