In one sense, Nick Clegg has kept his word.
I know, I can’t believe I’ve just written that sentence either.
You could well argue that the Lib Dems have hardly fought tooth and nail for these priorities, to put it mildly, but that’s an argument for another time.
The point to note for the moment is: these priorities do not include anything on university fees. Indeed, it seems that the Lib Dems had decided before the election that they would not spent too much time defending their pledge to vote against any rise of tuition fees:
A month before Clegg pledged in April to scrap the “dead weight of debt”, a secret team of key Lib Dems made clear that, in the event of a hung parliament, the party would not waste political capital defending its manifesto pledge to abolish university tuition fees within six years. In a document marked “confidential” and dated 16 March, the head of the secret pre-election coalition negotiating team, Danny Alexander, wrote: “On tuition fees we should seek agreement on part-time students and leave the rest. We will have clear yellow water with the other [parties] on raising the tuition fee cap, so let us not cause ourselves more headaches.”
Chris Davies, a Lib Dem MEP for the North West, articulated quite clearly what a lot of you must now be thinking about “that pledge”:
Our opposition to tuition fees was born of principle and sustained by electoral popularity. It was an indulgence. The truth is surely that it survived as party policy because in our heart of hearts we didn’t think we would be in a position to put it into practice.
It’s no wonder, then, that people talk of “betrayal”. This behaviour from the Lib Dems is certainly very cynical, if not downright deceitful.
Vince Cable has defended the current position on the Lib Dems on tuition fees (which is currently to vote for the proposal to triple university fees, though who knows what the policy will be tomorrow, or the day after that) on the fact that the Lib Dems have a coalition agreement to follow:
We didn’t break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn’t win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it’s the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I’m trying to honour.
Except this is what the coalition agreement says on university fees:
If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote. (p32)
I’m not sure abstaining on the issue would be much of an improvement either. As Nye Bevan once said, “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.” But it would at least honour the coalition agreement. The worse aspect of this whole sorry business is the fact that the Lib Dems gave themselves an opportunity to abstain on any fees arrangement, but are now voting for it, meaning they’re neither honouring their coalition agreement nor their pre-election pledge.
This FT blog catalogues the catalogue of strategic errors the Lib Dems have made on the fees issue, concluding with the fact that:
(R)ather than keep the reforms at arms length, the Lib Dems took on full responsibility for redesigning the system. By getting too involved in creating the policy they effectively gave up their right to stand aside.
Peter Oborne has argued that Nick Clegg has shown that he is a man of judgement and courage. Actually he seems more like an opportunist and a lightweight, who is playing a bad hand very poorly indeed.