The Liberal Democrats are at it again.
The party that argued against Tory economic policy and now backs it, the party that campaigned against a VAT rise and then voted for it, is making another major policy u-turn, this time on student tuition fees.
Despite a clear election manifesto commitment to abolishing fees, Business Secretary Vince Cable has given the coalition government’s approval to a report which recommends an unlimited rise in tuition fees in England’s universities.
Cable has accepted that fees will stay, much to the disappointment of many in his own party, although he has suggested that students might expect to pay fees of about £7,000 – more than double than at present. Is this a limit, which his Conservative masters are against, believing that the market should reign supreme?
54 of the 57 Lib Dem MPs have signed a National Union of Students’ pledge to vote against any rise in fees. Nick Clegg has called the whole notion of fees “unfair”. And in a video made for students during the election Clegg delivered a personal message, saying that tuition fees were “wrong” and that he would oppose them.
You can even read of the Lib Dems plans to remove tuition fees on the party’s website: http://www.nickclegg.org.uk/education.aspx
But many back bench MPs are already talking of voting against Cable’s plans. Under the coalition agreement, the Lib Dems have the right to abstain on this issue but talk is of going further. Linda Jack, a member of the Lib Dems’ federal policy committee, told BBC radio she thought around 30 Lib Dem MPs could rebel.
Greg Mulholland, MP for Leeds North West, has already written an article for the Guardian, outlining his opposition. He states, “the idea of increasing tuition fees by such a large amount is something I refuse to support.”
And the party’s deputy leader Simon Hughes this morning talked of his colleagues needing time to reflect, although he did remind MPs that, “the policy of the Liberal Democrats as of today is to still make sure we don’t increase tuition fees and that’s where we start from.”
“As of today”? Does that mean that it might change tomorrow, or the day after? Can the party leadership simply reverse its policy? That would not go down well with members of a party that claims to be democratic.
The Liberal Democrats are a party in crisis. And it is all of their own making.
What credibility can any political party have when it is so willing to ditch its election commitments? When its leaders campaign for ideological cuts to the public sector as junior partners to the Tories? When any policy seems to be fair game if Cameron’s Tories demand its reversal?
No wonder the Lib Dems languish at just 12% in the opinion polls, far short of the 23% achieved at the General Election.
Anyone who voted for the party at the election must be feeling betrayed. They voted against the policies of David Cameron and his Tories; yet see Clegg and his cronies riding their ministerial limos to cabinet meetings to implement those same policies.
Voters will surely remember the series of u-turns and reverses when they next go into the voting booth. Who can possibly trust a party which is so willing to give up any principle it might once have had for a little power?