UK Politics

How Lib Dems are manoeuvring ahead of tuition fees vote

Are Nick Clegg and Vince Cable really planning not to support a plan they have passionately defended in public at every turn?

Even while on government business in Kazakhstan, the deputy prime minister took time to explain again that he thinks the proposals to break his party's promise and increase tuition fees would be "better, more progressive and fairer" than the existing system.

On Wednesday Vince Cable willingly subjected himself to a dressing down in front of the TV cameras, by a group of London sixth formers, to be seen to be explaining and defending the policy.

But, a day later, Nick Clegg made the point he was still trying with his party to find a "collective" position, raising again the prospect that he and other Cabinet ministers might abstain.

Shifting sands

Really? Well in the last ten days since we first reported the idea that ministers might abstain things have been shifting behind the scenes.

Image caption Nick Clegg wants to limit the number of his MPs who vote against the fees rise

The notion from the leadership was - offer abstention as an olive branch and in turn, more of the fees refuseniks might join the abstaining camp.

Ministers share the pain, busting the traditional government rules of collective responsibility in return for their MP colleagues risking the wrath of constituents to whom they had made a promise.

For sure, ministers risked parody for not backing their own government's plans, but at least the party would have more or less stuck together with no big breach of faith with their coalition partners.

And remember as far as the party leadership is concerned, preserving the coalition agreement has to be a priority.

But with only a week to go before the crucial Commons vote, the idea of that plan coming off now seems increasingly unrealistic.

The prospect of ministers feeling the backbench pain has squeezed down the number of potential rebels from potentially more than twenty to a more manageable dozen or so.

Hardcore rebels

But a hardcore of backbenchers has dug in. And with that the chances of ministers abstaining is fading fast. Whatever Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are saying in public about the possibility of the Lib Dems being able to stick together, their tactic to achieve that does not appear to have worked.

So, the smart money in Westminster goes on every Lib Dem Cabinet minister voting for the proposals, and a clutch of others being willing to do so too.

Most backbenchers will then abstain and then a dozen or so vote 'no'.

This won't be a scenario that the leadership exactly loves, but it is a situation they could tolerate.

Things certainly aren't static though. Some MPs have still not decided and the leadership is still refusing officially to show its hand.

Party bosses are still working night and day, when not on the plane back from Kazakhstan of course, to drive the numbers of 'no' voters down further, or at the very least to hold them where they are.

But the cunning plan for the Lib Dems to be able to act, more or less as one, appears to have had its day.

Here is a list of Lib Dem MPs, based on BBC research, who have either confirmed they will vote against the fee rise or indicated they may do so.

  • Sir Menzies Campbell
  • Tim Farron
  • Charles Kennedy
  • John Leech
  • Greg Mulholland
  • John Pugh
  • Bob Russell
  • Mark Williams
  • Simon Wright
  • Julian Huppert
  • Martin Horwood
  • Ian Swales
  • Jenny Willott

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