Friday, 28 September 2012

Nick Clegg's fees apology: why it won't wash

The news that Liberal Democrat leader, and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg had apologised for his vote in favour of raising student tuition fees (above) sounded like a welcome move. A political leader apologising? Taking responsibility for a broken promise? Spelling out the realities of plain old real life? It could only be welcome.

Until you looked at what he was apologising for. Because he wasn't saying 'we're sorry - we couldn't secure that because we're in a coalition'. He wasn't even saying 'we're sorry, we found out that we couldn't afford it once we were in office'. The voters might have thought that fair enough - and perhaps a refreshing change from leaders who blame everyone else, all of the time.

But no.

He wasn't apologing for any of those things at all. He wasn't offering those types of explanations. What he was really saying - and this is even more obvious after his leadership speech to the party's conference - was: the party's left-wing got it wrong all the time. We should never have even made the pledge. I warned you against it. I tried to reverse it. We should never propose underfunded social policies all the time. They're silly and opportunistic.

And you know what? He's wrong. And everyone knows he's wrong. Not really because the student fees pledge was funded and was affordable within the manifesto itself. Radically downsizing Britain's Trident nucler deterrent, for instance, is both a Liberal Democrat policy - and one that would easily pay for all English students to go to university for free.They have, to be fair, not been able to push many of these concepts through in office, because they are indeed in a coalition with a very different party.

No: Mr Clegg is being disingenuous because (as this column has argued again and again) the new student fees system is actually more expensive in this Parliament and the next than the old one. It's taxpayers, not undergraduates, who pay up front - to see the money only decades later, and with about 30 to 40 per cent of it written off forever. The whole structure is completely unsustainable, and will bankrupt both the Treasury and English Higher Education if allowed to wheeze on for too long. That's one of the main reasons why the Government is preparing to come back for even more cuts to university funding in the next spending round.

So it's got nothing to do with having to break a pledge that turned out to be unaffordable - one that was both costed, and the breaking of which squanders money on setting up a ridiculous off-the-balance-sheet accounting trick. Mr Clegg's rather painful (and easily satirised) apology video has got everything to do with shoring up his position within his party - precarious indeed now that there's a ready-made alternative waiting in the wings.

That's why it won't wash.

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