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What are chances of a “Progressive Browne” deal on student fees being implemented?

Well, thanks to the Today programme this morning we see that even John Browne doesn’t know what the government’s response to his report will be.

Does that mean, as I argued at Conservative Home on Sunday, that it’s a genuine crisis for the coalition? Michael White today in the Guardian is among those who think so.

Or does it mean, as Conservative Home’s editor Tim Montgomerie argued in a riposte later in the day, that this is business as usual for the coalition, that tough choices will have to be made to reach a compromise? That’s also what David Cameron told reporters yesterday.

You pays your money and you takes your choice. What’s clear from the whirl of confusion around the release of the report is that it has become wrapped in high, intensely obscure backroom politics. Are any big blocks of policy effectively in place or is it all still to play for? The sense that the field may still be more open than ministers would like has been accentuated by two think tanks throwing their own un-Browne-like proposals for reform into the ring yesterday. Both Policy Exchange and the Social Market Foundation plainly think theres still time and scope to capture the debate.

All eyes will be on Vince Cable this afternoon when he speaks to the House of Commons. He will want to create a sense of inevitability to counteract the attempts of the National Union of Students to destabilise the party leadership. But how far will he feel able to go?

  • A holding statement that the government will look at Browne with a view to making it more progressive
  • Suggestions of ways the government is interested in revising Browne, eg with higher interest rates for rich graduates
  • A definitive commitment to vote for the 6k soft fees cap from the Lib Dems, thus becoming the moment when Clegg repudiates his pre-election pledges on fees.

The two big political things that could knock the move towards “Progressive Brown” off course are Lib Dem bloodletting or a right-wing backlash over the squeezed middle, like the one that caused Camerons wobble last week over child benefit. But both possibilities seem muted this morning.

The Lib Dem leadership has succeeded, at least temporarily, in shutting down open debate by serious figures within the party on the subject.

And Cameron need not be too worried by the papers yesterday and today. The Telegraph has sent mixed messages – voicing both a willingness to be reasonable and the demand that the middle not be squeezed (which is the essence of Browne). The Mail today has buried the story, and even the cartoon is rueful rather than cutting. Murdoch’s Sun and Times are not on the warpath. The Guardian can be ignored.

One thing is certain from the arithmetic in the Commons. If Clegg leads his party past the Aye tellers, it doesn’t matter if there’s a backbench rebellion, the government will carry the day. If I was the Russell Group, right now Id be feeling pretty content.

Macs cartoon in the Daily Mail today

Mail Mac
Look, Simon. Mummy and Daddy have brought you a
hoodie – why not bunk off school and join a nice gang
of yobs?