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Nick Clegg’s terminal dilemma on student fees

Newsnight last night showed us the depth of tensions within the Liberal Democrats over fees – and why universities should be much more worried than they are about the possibility of higher fees being defeated in a vote in the House of Commons.

It’s all a question of arithmetic.

“The Lib Dem high command have made it clear to me that they expect ministers to support the final package [on fees],” said the programmes reporter, Michael Crick.

That’s 18 ministers, to which you could add another 5 junior bag carriers. In that case, to defeat the government, Lib Dem antis would have to muster over 40 votes – unrealistic. Thats the kind of inevitability the Coalitions leaders want to cultivate.

But then we got this exchange between Jermey Paxman and Simon Hughes. Hughes has just explained that the party’s policy is what it is on fees and likely to remain that way. Paxman is poking fun at him (watch here).

“So you’ve got 18 MPs who will vote against party policy?”

“Well not necessarily. They won’t necessarily vote against party policy because the Coalition Agreement allows Liberal Democrats to abstain on this issue. But backbenchers obviously are free to rebel if that’s what they feel they need to do.”

Hughes is saying that instead of voting against party policy (and for the government), the Lib Dem ministers can abstain and be consistent with the Coalition Agreement. That, Hughes is suggesting, is the course of action that is consistent with the party’s position and, we can infer, acceptable to him. Meanwhile backbenchers are “free to rebel” – ie vote against higher fees. In this case, it will only need about 20 Lib Dem MPs to vote against to potentially defeat a rise in fees, a number that is entirely plausible.

Maybe Hughes is bluffing. Maybe the party will be persuaded by Vince Cable. Maybe Nick Clegg will pull off a remarkable act of leadership. Maybe MPs will be too terrified by the thought of a split that they are cowed into line by the whips. But there’s one thing you can say for certain about a nightmare scenario in politics: you don’t ignore it.

Yesterday I looked at what this scenario means for the Coalition (see Why David Cameron may need to nuke the Lib Dems on fees). Now let’s look at what it means for Clegg.

Suppose for a moment that Clegg is unable to wring from his Coalition partners much in the way of concessions, and that he presses ahead with attempting to lead his ministerial team past the Aye tellers. This would be not only a breach of party policy but also a breach of the limited dispension from that policy given by the party when it approved the Coalition Agreement. Not to mention those pesky NUS pledges.

Clegg could then face opposition from a majority of his parliamentary colleagues, and the official party apparatus (such as the federal policy committee that last night reiterated its support for existing policy), and from campaigning elements such as the youth wing – as well as from the social liberal wing that the economically liberal wing has excluded from power via the Coalition deal (Hughes, Charles Kennedy, Paddy Ashdown, Menzies Campbell etc).

What happens then if Clegg presses ahead and leads an Aye vote in the face if all that? The worst case scenario for him is a putsch that topples him as leader – and places a question mark over the Coalition itself. That’s clearly unlikely for many reasons. But what those in the universities hoping for higher fees may have to ask themselves is, is this really a gamble he’s willing to take?

Labour or Conservative leaders could just ride over all this party rumbling. But the Lib Dems are different – or at least they think they are. We may be about to find out how true those claims to deep democracy really are.