Nick Clegg says sorry over broken tuition fees pledge – the clearest sign yet he wants to fight the 2015 election

by Stephen Tall on September 19, 2012

Here’s the next Lib Dem party political broadcast — and before you run away at the thought of a PPB this one is more interesting than most because Nick Clegg says sorry for breaking the Lib Dems’ manifesto commitment to scrap tuition fees. Here you go:

My first impressions are:

1) I think Nick gets the tone right. This isn’t one of those political apologies (“I’m sorry if you’re so sensitive you might possible have been offended by my common-sense statement”) — it’s a full-blown apology.

2) The apology works I think, because it actually levels with the audience. Nick says it was a pledge sincerely made, but without thinking through fully the consequences of ending up in Coalition — with both the Tories and Labour committed to raising fees — nor of the changed economic circumstances with the UK embarking on a severe austerity programme. It has the ring of truth, not least because it is true. That makes it more likely folk will listen.

3) This is the clearest sign yet that Nick Clegg is going to do his utmost to stay as Lib Dem leader in order to fight the next general election. Back in February, I invited Tim Montgomerie to offer some advice ‘from the other side of the Coalition’. Here’s what he said about the Lib Dem leader:

… you can’t go into the next election with Nick Clegg at the top of your ticket. I can see it now – Clegg in the televised debates looking into the camera and looking for another Manchester moment. After he’s delivered his lines the debate anchor will turn to the Labour leader (it might be Ed Miliband but I wouldn’t like to bet on it) and ask for a reaction. All the Labour leader has to say is “tuition fees”. “No student, no parent, no voter will ever believe a promise you make, Mr Clegg, after you promised to scrap tuition fees and then increased them dramatically.”

This broadcast is Nick Clegg’s most direct attempt yet to draw a line under the tuition fees debacle in the hope that he can persuade Lib Dem members he can still be an asset to the party at the next election. I don’t know if it will work, but I applaud this not-without-risks strategy of meeting the argument head-on.

By the way, Nick’s apology reminds me of what I wrote about the breaking of that pledge two years ago:

… to me, the NUS pledge was symptomatic of the party’s occasionally opportunistic oppositional mindset — we never expected to have power, and so we didn’t behave as if we ever would.

True, our manifesto was fully-costed, in the limited sense that we had allowed enough tax rises to offset the abolition of tuition fees over six years. But we had identified only 25% of the public spending cuts needed to cut the deficit; better than any other party, yet still nowhere near enough to balance the nation’s budget. Weighed against that priority, eradicating tuition fees was always an unaffordable luxury — and we knew that well enough before the election.

Well, now we’re paying the price of not really expecting we’d find ourselves in power. Perhaps the events of the past two months will be largely forgotten in five years’ time… after all, I recall the vitriol directed against the Lib Dems after Charles Kennedy was forced from the leadership in 2006, the damage that fiasco did to the party’s brand among the wider public. Yet we had recovered by 2010.

If they’re not forgotten… well, we’ve only ourselves to blame for putting party priorities ahead of the public’s priorities. That’s what hapens when parties bend to their activists and stop listening to the public.