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Sunday, 14 November 2010

Fees to the left, fees to the right....

There is a salutary lesson for politicians of all political parties: don’t make categorical promises if you intend to break them, particularly so soon after the election.

Sometimes the breaking of election pledges (and they all do it at some time!) marks a parting with the electorate. While they didn’t quite take to the streets, John Major was certainly haunted by his‘no new taxes’ pledge in the early 1990s, and especially after his government imposed VAT on domestic fuel. Voters never really forgave him for the ‘22 Tory Tax rises’ breaking what they thought was a very specific pledge at the 1992 General Election, where tax had played a deciding factor in the outcome (remember the Tax Bombshell?)

Jump forward almost two decades and we have thousands of students in uproar (and a small minority of them behaving criminally) at the Liberal Democrats for their apparent u-turn on tuition fees. And it is the Lib Dems they blame, though ironically it was Tory HQ the militant activists trashed! The banners and effigies, the chants and the speeches; they all targeted the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg specifically.

Little Nick had a torrid time at PMQ’s, standing in for his boss who was over in China trying to whip up trade. Harriet Harman was especially withering, using humour to very good effect: “You are at Freshers’ week. You meet up with a dodgy bloke and you do things that you regret. Is not the truth of it that the Deputy Prime Minister has been led astray by the Tories?” she said.

There was no real comeback, and a floundering Deputy Prime Minister knew it.

For Nick Clegg, when of course he wasn’t the Deputy Prime Minister, had not only gone on YouTube and said that he and his party would categorically not support an increase in tuition fees, but that he would aim to reduce tuition fees as a first step to abolishing them. A rise to £7,000 a year would be a “disaster”, he said (the Coalition is proposing up to £9,000 a year). And worse still for the Lib Dems, every one of their MP’s – including Nick Clegg – signed a very specific pledge to vote against a rise; one they are now very clearly breaking!

So there will undoubtedly be difficult times ahead for the Coalition. Tuition fees will rise as proposed (unless some other rabbit is pulled out of George Osborne’s hat) and that, even with a number of Lib Dems abstaining or even rebelling, the government has enough of them on the payroll to ensure the necessary votes are won.

It might, however, be the breaking point for a section of the electorate who have – certainly since 2005 – been disproportionately supportive of the Liberal Democrats. It is also a wake-up that governing isn’t quite as easy as opposition.

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