I do dislike the fashionable explanation for Lib Dem unpopularity, that they are the government’s human shield for unpopular measures.
Their poor performance in the latest local elections is largely down to two words “tuition fees”. This single policy has so far proved the most unpopular of all the government’s measures, and has generated the strongest protests. This was not a Conservative policy which the Lib Dems were made to sign up to. This was a policy designed by Dr Cable on the back of the Browne Report, commissioned by the outgoing Labour government. It damaged Lib Dems because they had promised the opposite before the election and had made it such a big issue.
In previous elections Conservatives had campaigned against tuition fees and opposed Labour’s introduction. In 2010 Conservatives decided we could not find the money for their abolition, given the obvious hole in the public finances. We said we would study the Browne Report and come forward with proposals, but we knew abolition of fees was unaffordable. They might have to go up. Lib Dems made tuition fees a high profile issue of their campaign, and challenged many Conservative candidates to defend Labour’s fees when they were promising their abolition.
When the Coalition formed Lib Dems sensibly negotiated the right to sit out a new higher education policy and to abstain should we need to vote for higher fees. So far so good. Yet Dr Cable, on receipt of the Browne Report, decided to come up with his own scheme for much higher fees and then to recommend that Lib Dems voted for it in the Commons.
Conservatives did not make him do that. Many of us were very surprised he did. Some of us lobbied him on aspects of the scheme. I was worried about access to eduction and lobbied for more generous access funds. I was also worried about the high initial costs to the taxpayer in the form of higher borrowing to meet the demand for loans, as I thought the idea of changing the financial arrangements was to lower the burden on the public accounts, not increase it. I favoured a more gradual approach.
The main point is this. There was no group of Conservatives designing the tuition fee scheme, no group pressing for it. It was not Conservative policy. The tuition fee scheme was designed by Dr Cable, and pressed by him. Conservatives went along with it, often reluctantly. We were breaking no promise to electors by doing so, as we had left open at the election how HE would be paid for.
Lib Dems are not the Conservatives’ shield on this measure. They were full partners who choose to design this part of the government’s policy. Conservatives did not come into the government with a series of unpopular policies which we wanted help in making palatable. Both parties have a difficult job to do to clear up the inherited financial mess, and they just need to get on with collaborative working with that in mind.