Andrew Grice: The Coalition isn't finished, but Clegg must learn the lesson of this fiasco

Inside Westminster
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The Independent Online

A lot of cherished Liberal Democrat policies will have to go on the backburner," Nick Clegg told me in his cramped Commons office.

"We are not going to kid the British people into thinking we could deliver the full list of commitments we have put to them at the last three or four elections."

It was July 2009, and the Liberal Democrat leader was anticipating the inevitable squeeze on public spending. I asked if he was talking about promises such as scrapping university tuition fees.

He replied: "Some of these might be retained as policies that we could not honestly place at the forefront of our manifesto."

Sadly for him, Mr Clegg couldn't persuade his party to ditch the tuition fees pledge. He tried – at draining marathon meetings of its federal policy committee. A Conservative or Labour leader would have bounced his party and got away with it. But the Liberal Democrats are democratic. They agreed to phase in the abolition of fees over six years, a ludicrous policy implying two consecutive terms of Liberal Democrat government.

Mr Clegg's comments show that he started out with good intentions. They didn't last. Having failed to dump the unrealistic promise, he succumbed to temptation. All 57 Liberal Democrat MPs signed a personal pledge to oppose a rise in fees. The die was cast. "Our attitude was that it was in the manifesto, so we might as well trumpet it," one senior party figure admits.

This came back to haunt Mr Clegg in Thursday's momentous Commons vote on tuition fees. That fateful pledge ringing in their ears, 27 out of 34 Liberal Democrat backbenchers refused to support their leader.

A rueful Mr Clegg wishes the debate had had a different starting point. He and Vince Cable worked hard to make the policy a lot fairer than it would have been under a Tory government, but will get no credit for it. The Coalition's package might have been sellable if two issues had not dominated the debate: the Liberal Democrat U-turn and the scary headline figure of £9,000-a-year fees. That figure is too high and, if it doesn't frighten off students from poor backgrounds from going to university, I will eat my woolly winter hat.

At the election, Labour and the Tories hid conveniently behind the Browne review. But the Liberal Democrats, not expecting to be in power, were left exposed by their pledge when they suddenly got a taste of it. Remarkably, the Tories have managed to hide conveniently behind the Liberal Democrats. It was bad luck that Mr Cable's department is in charge of universities. Or maybe another reason why the wily George Osborne did not want Mr Cable to join his Treasury team in May?

Mr Clegg feels cast in the role of fall guy. Little or no mud has stuck to Mr Cameron or Mr Osborne. Mr Cameron came off the subs' bench in injury time, making a hastily arranged speech on fees on Wednesday. Too little, too late. No wonder the argument has not been won.

At times, the Liberal Democrats' handling of a difficult problem has been shambolic, their agonising too public. Last month, their MPs met for three hours and emerged with a three-way split, one for each hour. Mr Cable hinted that he might abstain on his own policy and then announced he would support it.

Their arguments on fees are all over the place. Sometimes they confess to making an unrealistic pledge; on other occasions, they say abolishing fees is still their policy; blame the economic crisis; blame coalition politics; say they are proud of the policy or apologise for it.

Mr Clegg's party must learn lessons from this fiasco. The obvious one is about unrealistic promises. After a spell of sharing power, the next manifesto will have to be framed for another coalition, not the Liberal Democrat government of the party's dreams. Mr Clegg may have to reform his party's ways of working. Yet, at the same time, he will have to preserve its identity.

But reports of the demise of Mr Clegg or the Coalition are exaggerated. The signs are that Liberal Democrat MPs will pull together rather than split apart (as they have twice done in history after joining the Tories in coalition). The Liberal Democrats reached a crossroads this week, but they are not necessarily heading down a cul-de-sac.

Mr Clegg hopes his party is experiencing growing pains as it moves to a new level. In an ornate Commons committee room on Tuesday, he told his MPs that it had gone from a party of protest to one which people protested about. Sir Alan Beith, the former deputy leader, recalled the days when the party had so few MPs that they met in a dingy basement. "I am not going back there," he said. The voters will decide that.

"Cleggmania" has made it into the dictionary, but it may prove a short-lived entry. The biggest challenge for Mr Clegg is to attract a new group of voters to replace the ones who hoped in May that the Liberal Democrats were different to the two old parties and now feel they are just as bad.