Going into the last election, many of Nick Clegg’s closest allies and, I suspect, the Lib Dem leader himself found the tuition fees pledge embarrassing. It was precisely the kind of opportunistic policy that they had tried to wean the party off.
But when it came to the election and it was still, despite their best efforts, party policy they decided to run with it. As soon as the election results came in, it was clear that Clegg’s exploitation of the subject was going to cause him problems seeing as both Tories and Labour were committed to the Browne review which was almost certain to come out for higher fees.
But when the Browne review came in with its recommendation for £9,000 fees, Clegg — partly, at Vince Cable’s urging — compounded the problem by not exercising the Lib Dem’s coalition agreement opt-out on the matter. Instead, Lib Dem MPs were whipped to vote for the increase.
Tuition fees then became Exhibit A for the case that the Liberal Democrats had sold out by going into government. It made Clegg the personal focus of anti-coalition ire and did huge, and possibly irreparable, damage to his personal brand.
Tonight’s ‘sorry’ from Clegg is an attempt to repair this damage. Liberal Democrats know that Clegg can’t realistically lead the party into the next election if the issue of tuition fees remains the millstone around his neck that it is now. If this apology has no effect, then it’ll be painfully clear that a Lib Dem recovery will require a different leader.
Clegg’s sorry has also clearly taken some of his ministers by surprise. Jeremy Browne, who was made the Lib Dem minister of state at the Home Office in the reshuffle, told The Spectator just this week that it was an ‘unrealistic expectation’ that the Lib Dems could block a fees increase given the election result. Unapologetically, he declared that at the last election, ‘People had a choice of voting for a party that didn’t want tuition fees and only 8% of the constituencies in the country returned an MP from that party so the people spoke and the people spoke very loudly and they said we want higher fees.’Tags: Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, Tuition fees, UK politics