Sunday News Review

Clegg: No regrets

Briefly hailed as more popular than Churchill, Nick Clegg may well now be the most hated man in Britain. Effigies burnt in the street, dog mess through his letterbox, bike rides abandoned over fears for his safety. “I never imagined it would be any different,” he insists. Liberal Democrat leader; Deputy Prime Minister; architect of a new politics; and Judas to millions of students. The one-time political outsider sits forward on a plush, cream Whitehall sofa in defiant mood; belligerent even. “Not a week goes by without a commentator saying ‘next week the coalition will fall apart’, and not a week or day goes by without us confounding those views.” There must surely be times, though, when he has had second thoughts, regrets. “No. None at all. I’m absolutely convinced that almost any other course of action would have been a disaster for the country.” – The Independent

Once upon a time, long, long ago – well, six months ago – Nick Clegg gave a pre-election interview to the Observer in which he forecast “Greek-style” unrest on the streets of Britain if the next government tried to drive through policies for which it did not have a proper mandate. I thought at the time that this was over-the-top attention-seeking by a Lib Dem leader who was then struggling to make an impression on the consciousness of the nation. For this was before the leaders’ TV debate which briefly transformed him into the messiah of a new politics. I am now happy to admit that I was wrong and he was right. The government is facing street demonstrations with a Greek streak during which the protesters roar that they have been betrayed. What Nick Clegg didn’t anticipate – where his crystal ball let him down – was that he would be the focus of the fury. – The Observer

Will they, won’t they?

As students gathered for another angry demonstration on the streets of Westminster, Nick Clegg suddenly had a change of heart. He telephoned Vince Cable in a panic. “We’ve got to abstain,” he told the Business Secretary. Mr Cable was shocked at the apparent wobble. He told the Deputy Prime Minister he must hold his nerve on the approaching vote on the Coalition’s proposal to charge students up to £9,000 a year for their university fees. But Mr Clegg was adamant that he could not vote for it, according to insiders. Clearly shaken by the strength of the protests, he insisted that the party should abstain on the proposals when they go before the Commons on Thursday, despite his personally having defended them robustly in public for weeks. Mr Cable had also defended the proposals vociferously, and not just to the general public. It was the Business Secretary who was charged with writing to every Lib Dem member just before the policy was unveiled, urging them to accept the plan. Having nailed his colours to the mast so forcefully, Mr Cable was determined not to be seen performing a u-turn. He made clear they should not back out now. – The Telegraph

Nick Clegg tried last night to buy off protesting students with a pledge that the poorest ones would escape tuition fees for up to two years. The Deputy PM revealed the U-turn as chaos reigned among Lib Dems MPs ahead of a crunch vote on tuition fees on Thursday. Under his plan, about one in 20 of the 400,000 who go to university each year would be exempt from tuition fees for one year. About 80,000 students – who were eligible for free school meals in their secondary schools – a year would fight for just 18,000 places on the National Scholarship Programme. The move is aimed at easing students’ fury over the planned hike in tuition fees after violent protests across the country. But Lib Dem bosses last night refused to say whether they would vote to lift the cap in England from £3,375 to £9,000 a year – even though Lib Dem Vince Cable is the architect of the idea. – The Mirror

In the coalition negotiations, as David Laws recounts in his book, tuition fees were not regarded as a big problem. Agreement was swiftly reached – although it is worth pausing to explain its nature, as it lies behind this week’s confusion. The agreement provides for Lib Dem MPs to abstain in any Commons vote “if the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept”. This looks like a concession to the Lib Dems, but it was actually a way of allowing the Tories a free hand. As everyone understands better now, abstention lets the Tories have their way, while letting the Lib Dems say that they don’t like it. At the time, it was considered a price worth paying for the coalition. In return for three abstentions – the others were on nuclear power and tax relief for married couples – the Lib Dems got a referendum on changing the voting system. What Clegg and Danny Alexander failed to foresee was that they, or, rather, Vince Cable, would be responsible for “the Government’s response to Lord Browne’s report”. In which case, the question of abstention does not arise. It was resurrected only because the party is so divided on the issue, and it looked like a way of smoothing over the depth of the split. – The Independent

Government risks setting back social mobility

A defining test of this government will be whether their plans to cut the deficit and roll back the state will entrench privilege and inequality still further. Nick Clegg last week trumpeted the advancement of social mobility as the new test of fairness. As poorer students face the abolition of educational maintenance allowances, the outreach work of AimHigher – a programme aimed at helping people into higher education – is scrapped and David Cameron and Nick Clegg give the Commons five days to treble student debt. These are tests that the government’s reforms will fail. Their proposals to shift the entire cost of a university education on to graduates risk setting back social mobility in Britain for a generation. Sir Peter Lampl from the Sutton Trust, who supported the introduction of a graduate contribution in 2003, has expressed his concern that “fees on this scale will deter many students from lower and middle-income homes from higher education in general, and from the prestigious universities charging the highest fees in particular”. – Ed Miliband, The Observer

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