John Rentoul: Clegg has trust issues. Sound familiar?

It would be easy to write off the Lib Dems. And well-advised. But the betrayal began long before Thursday night

Related Topics

Now that it is all over, Dr Hindsight has come to tell us what should have happened. It is patently obvious that Nick Clegg should not have started from where he did. We have been over this ground before, many times. Signing the pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees was possibly the biggest error of political judgement since Nicholas Ridley told Margaret Thatcher that a charge per person for local council services was an excellent idea that would be popular.

Even if Clegg, Vince Cable and Danny Alexander had not personally signed the pledge, the manifesto on which they had been elected would still have promised to "scrap unfair university tuition fees [by] a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years".

But Dr Hindsight starts with the formation of the coalition government and the decision by Clegg, Cable and David Cameron that the Liberal Democrats should finesse their own promises. That was the moment of betrayal, not Thursday night in the House of Commons. It was in that first, seven-page document agreed on 11 May that the sell-out occurred. This was the sentence: "If the response of the Government to Lord Browne's report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote." Cable was appointed Secretary of State for Business the next day. But the die was cast. That sentence meant that the Lib Dems would not block the Government's proposals, whatever they were.

So it is beside the point to complain about the 28 Liberal Democrat MPs who voted for higher fees last week. Equally, the praise for most of the 21 who voted against is undeserved. The only Lib Dem MPs who have the right to hold their heads half high are Charles Kennedy, John Leech (new MP for Manchester Withington) and the third, unknown, MP who allegedly abstained on the night of 11 May on whether to go into the coalition. Although they were hardly brave – I have a vision of Kennedy at the back of the room, pretending to scratch his head when a show of hands was sought, and then deciding in the days after to announce that he had withheld his support.

Again, at the party's special conference in Birmingham on Sunday 16 May, dissenters and abstainers were not counted or recorded. The coalition agreement was "overwhelmingly approved". So it was the overwhelming majority of MPs and party delegates who betrayed their election promises. (Strictly speaking, some Lib Dem MPs then re-ratted on Thursday, by voting against higher tuition fees when the coalition agreement provided only for abstention if they didn't like Cable's plan.)

So, Dr Hindsight, how should Vince Cable, having broken his promises, have enacted the treason? Well, that is easy, and I am glad you asked.

First, Cable should not have tried to persuade John Browne, commissioned by Labour to review student finance, to make his report more palatable to the Lib Dems. Instead, he should have conspired with Lord Browne to make the report an eye-watering argument for a higher education market. Then he could have made a great show of rejecting parts of it and replacing them with the milk of social democracy and the balm of the liberal arts. Lord Browne, I'm sure, would have understood.

In doing so, Cable should have applied the Humpty Dumpty Rule of Politics, that words mean what you want them to mean. He should have "scrapped" tuition fees by calling them a graduate account. And he should have called his scheme a graduate tax even if, technically, it isn't.

I was intrigued that Paul Waugh of Politics Home reported last week that Cable had indeed used the words "graduate tax" in a draft of his important speech in July. He was forced to take them out, either because of the Treasury's institutional aversion to new taxes or because of David Cameron's political hostility to them, or both. The small print of the legislation would have to make clear that the obligation owed by graduates was an enforceable contract repayable through the tax system, but who understands the difference between loans-for-fees and a graduate tax?

Of course, trying to disown the words "fees" and "debt" might not have worked well. The furies would still have descended on Cable and Clegg, accusing them of trying to wriggle out of their promises with semantics, but would that be worse than what they face now?

Because this looks very much like the end of the Liberal Democrats as a political force. The easiest thing to write after last week's dramas would be: don't write off Clegg. But I don't see it. All I see is a party broken by that vote. Only eight backbenchers voted with the Government. One of them was David Laws. Another was Sir Alan Beith. Proportionately, it was a far bigger rebellion than Labour's over Iraq. I see 17 ministers and three of their aides voting to keep their jobs. A leadership challenge is just gossip, but I see one minister, Chris Huhne, waiting to pounce, absent from the vote doing saintly green stuff in Cancun, the unsullied king across the Atlantic (unlike Greg Barker, his junior Tory minister, who returned to spend nine hours on British soil, a motorbike taxi waiting at the Commons while he voted).

I see a party repeating a pattern: in every peace-time coalition, the Conservatives have been strengthened, while their Liberal or Labour junior partners have been marginalised. And I see a party, after six months in government, that has "this huge stuff about trust", as Alastair Campbell wrote after six years. The only strategy that holds out any hope for Clegg at the 2015 election is for the Lib Dems to offer "radical", "progressive" or "sick" policies – whatever the buzz word is by then – that are distinctive. He can say, "Vote for us and we will influence the government if parliament stays hung." We don't need Dr Hindsight to tell us how the voters are likely to respond.;

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: A royal serving the nation

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn