Should the Lib/Dems be allowed to abstain on tuition fees?

Tim Montgomerie points out at Conservative Home here that the exact wording of the Tuition Fees section of the Coalition Agreement is as follows:

"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".

Things have moved on since then, and it would be more than a little ironic (to put it mildly) that if this agreement is invoked to the letter, the minister who drafted the policy may end up abstaining himself.

I'm not convinced that abstention will satisfy the people who are angry with the Lib/Dems over tuition fees, but that's their problem. An abstention is what was agreed in the coalition agreement, and if the Lib/Dems collectively abstain and the Conservatives all vote for the goverment position, it will be carried with a majority of 13 over all other parties.

If Lib/Dem ministers are allowed to abstain, there is a quid pro quo which the Conservatives can reasonably ask (and which, in fact, might possibly the Lib/Dems as well.)

David Cameron and Nick Clegg can and should each formally promise the other that, as both the coalition parties have agreed how they will vote on the fees issue in the national interest, both party's candidates will be asked not to directly attack the other on the subject at the next general election. E.g. Conservatives won't rub salt in the Lib/Dems' wounds by actively reminding voters in 2015 that the Lib/Dems broke a promise on the subject, Lib/Dems won't attempt to pretend that the fees increase is being entirely the tories' fault. (Which it isn't - Labour commissioned the review which led to this proposal, and the minister who is proposing the changes, whether or not he actually votes for it himself, is a Lib/Dem.)

There is, however a very important learning point out of the miserable mess which our politicians have got themselves into on student fees, and it is one that all parties would do well to remember.

Being honest with the voters is not a matter of promising whatever you like during the election campaign, or whatever will win votes, and expecting to be able to stick blindly to what you promised no matter how stupid or unsustainable a position that puts the country in.

Being honest with the electorate is partly a matter of not making a promise in the first place which you might be unable to keep.

And the Lib/Dems are not the only people who were guilty of that mistake during the 2010 election campaign. If by any ghastly chance Labour had been re-elected, I am convinced that the country would have discovered that the Lib/Dems were by no means the worst offenders.


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