The Liberal Democrats have been damaged by our divisions over tuition fees. The strongly held views of different MPs couldn’t be reconciled, and our role in government meant that we couldn’t share with Labour the luxury of being able to criticise without explaining how we would fund higher education.
Nick Clegg’s authority has taken a blow, but it is one from which he can recover. He will appreciate as never before that the inescapable rule for all political parties is that whether they do things well, or do things badly, they must do them together. Our influence over government policy depends upon us being reliable partners and our leader being able to deliver the votes.
Within the party Nick is unchallenged, but a lot of our MPs will be saying: “please don’t put us through that again.”
Morale has been shaken, and Nick needs now to rally the troops.
He should start with some mea culpa. It’s clear that the situation has not been handled well even if it’s unclear how it could have been handled better. Nick will need to provide reassurance that similar situations will be avoided in future, that elephant traps will be identified before we fall into them, and that MPs will have a greater chance to influence decisions before they are announced.
He can remind the parliamentary party that this is our first opportunity in generations to shape government policy. Liberal Democrats can be proud of measures that take the lowest paid out of tax, of commitments to democratic reform, and of helping some Conservatives (think Ken Clarke) release their ‘inner Liberal’. We can be pleased to have forged a pragmatic policy on Europe, halted the renewal of Trident, and stopped the Tories widening the income gap between generations by raising the inheritance tax threshold.
Nick can admit that there is bound to be more pain to come, but this is the price to be paid for being in government at a time of financial crisis. He can urge them to take no sanctimonious nonsense from a Labour Party that destroyed the country’s finances in the first place.
And, of course, he can lift the spirits of our MPs by being positive about the future. The hard bits have to be done now so that the good bits can follow.
A week is a long time in politics and there are 4 years to go before the general election. Liberal Democrats will be judged by our record over the lifetime of the Government, not by a single decision.
Nothing that has occurred in the debate over tuition fees will prevent Nick from being able to claim with good reason that that the record will prove to be a proud one.