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Making a virtue out of obscurity – the Lib Dems’ secret path out of the tuition fees crisis

On the day last week that the government announced its response to the Browne Review, Vince Cable and Nick Clegg went missing.

University tuition fees are the biggest issue facing Cable’s department and party, but he left it to his Conservative deputy, David Willetts, to take the floor in the House of Commons. On the Today programme on Radio 4 that morning it was – bizarrely – the Conservative schools guy, Michael Gove, who turned up to field questions. TV studios and reporters notebooks across the land with an interest in fees have remained empty of Cable and Clegg ever since.

This disappearing trick is no accident, for obscurity is the key to the way the Liberal Democrats are dealing with their acute problems over tuition fees.

In part, this is simply the age old preference for burying bad news. Every mention of tuition fees hurts the Lib Dems’ reputation with voters. So it is no surprise that the date of the government’s response was kept secret while being scheduled for the one day when spin doctors could guarantee another story would knock it off the top of the news – the day of the US midterm elections. And it’s no surprise that Cable followed up the next day with an announcement guaranteed to please the social liberal wing of his party that is most agitated by the U-turn on fees – referring Rupert Murdoch’s bid for full control of Sky to the regulators.

But the obscurity goes much deeper than this. The Lib Dems have so far succeeded in keeping buried discussion of the two key questions that ought to be the centre of discussion at present – the questions of principle and power.

In terms of principle, it is striking that no Lib Dem has articulated in public a progressive alternative to Browne, or the government plans. No one has set out a list of demands, progressive reforms to Browne that would make the policy acceptable to social liberals. Although the task of the government, oft repeated by ministers, is to make Browne more progressive, there has been no debate in public about what those tweaks should be.

In terms of power, it is again striking that there has been no public discussion of what the Lib Dem whip on the vote on fees should be. The party conference that ratified the Coalition Agreement only gave MPs the right to abstain on the issue rather than support the government. Because this question of whipping determines whether a rebellion can defeat the government or not, this is the key issue – a view recently endorsed by Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham and the UK’s specialist on backbench rebellions.

It is gradually becoming clear that all doors are shut. A few examples. The key antis, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, are not saying anything except they’ll vote against. The key to the swing MPs, Simon Hughes, is now saying he’ll make up his mind on the day – a position that both destroys any substantive debate and keeps his leverage intact. The Social Liberal Forum is the key left-wing grouping within the party and we at Research Fortnight discussed with one of its executive a public meeting tackling the question of a progressive response to Browne, but then that line went dead.

The obscurity is logical. It’s easier for Clegg (and David Cameron) to give ground to social liberals if he doesn’t have to do it in public. And – like ripping off a plaster – it’s easier for individual Lib Dem MPs to break their pledge if they do it in one day, rather than step-by-step over several weeks.

The question is, what is going on under this cloak of obscurity? Unfortunately, the legions of lobby correspondents don’t seem interested in finding out. Yet, although we have no idea of their state, negotiations clearly are taking place.

The key players are Cameron (including a clutch of Number 10 special advisers), Clegg, Cable, Willetts and Universities UK. The Treasury, Cables Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and the Higher Education Funding Council for England must be heavily involved in the background. The Russell Group has a route in via sympathetic Conservatives. After a brief flirtation when Browne reported, the National Union of Students seems to have been frozen out again. What we don’t know is who is negotiating on behalf of social liberals, or even whether there is effectively a social liberal bloc of MPs on this issue.

The partys two leading social liberals are Campbell and Kennedy. They are also the last two leaders of the Lib Dems. Clegg having to face them down is like Ed Miliband having to face down a rebellion led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Scary. Worse, there is a clear divide in terms of ideology and loyalty between Clegg/Cable (Orange Bookers) and Campbell/Kennedy that there isn’t between Miliband and Brown.

These are deep fault lines that risk destabilising Clegg’s entire leadership, either by making him seem the prisoner of social liberals, or by alienating so many social liberals that he is unable to lead effectively any more. The election has already strengthened these factional politics within the Lib Dems. For example, since the election Evan Harris, a leading social liberal, has started talking about a “progressive wing” of the party.

What then are we to make of the two Scots’ humble statement simply that they will vote against a rise in fees? Missing from that statement – and indeed any statement by any leading Lib Dem – is the desire and commitment to defeat a rise in fees (by first insisting on a whipped abstention and then rebelling en masse).

The two men have devoted their lives to politics. They have soldiered through long barren years. Now they find their party in power. Then comes a big issue on which they have a sincerely held belief that runs counter to the thrust of the Coalition’s policy and which, uniquely across all areas of policy, they can potentially transform or defeat. I simply do not believe in these circumstances that Campbell and Kennedy would consign themselves to irrelevance by viewing the question of tuition fees as a personal issue. No, I believe they are adhering to Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum to speak softly and carry a big stick.

Unless the whips mess up spectacularly, the end game must be a managed rebellion of Lib Dem MPs that allows those with the most vulnerable constituencies to vote against a rise in fees while ensuring the government wins the vote. The key limitation may be the willingness of not-so-vulnerable Lib Dems to make berths for their colleagues by taking the hit of actively supporting the rise in fees.

What’s interesting – and vital to universities and students – is the process by which we get there. Huge questions remain to be clarified by the government (eg how many students the Treausry will provide loans for), there remains scope for sharp turns on whats already been announced (eg boosting the £150 million scholarship fund), and who knows, we may even see some U-turns. And on all that, all is obscure.

Update 9 November – A reference to Julie Smith in the original version of this article has been removed.