Steve Richards: A U-turn that will wreck public trust

The Liberal Democrats benefited electorally from their opposition to increases in fees. Candidates did especially well in seats with a large proportion of student voters
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The furore over tuition fees is much the most significant to erupt since the election. The themes are so varied and multi-layered a university could offer a course on the subject and charge a fortune.

The first relates to trust and the importance of a mandate. Obviously this is not as significant as the substance of the policy and its likely impact on people's lives. Nonetheless, the route towards a policy is not always a trivial matter. The Liberal Democrats were unequivocal during the election campaign in their opposition to increases in top-up fees. There were no get out clauses in their statements and they benefited electorally from their stance. Liberal Democrat candidates did especially well in seats with a large proportion of student voters. Now Vince Cable pops up, with a demeanour that rather skilfully conveys pained calm, and says the economic situation makes such a pledge impossible to stick by.

Let us be clear about the economic situation. It has not changed since the election. Growth forecasts were revised downwards after George Osborne announced his extreme spending objectives in the self-proclaimed emergency Budget last summer, but some degree of growth is still predicted. As David Cameron stressed at his press conference on Monday, Britain is not in the Euro, like Ireland and Greece. Therefore it is free to pull more levers.

How oddly contorted the Coalition's economic case has become. The crisis in Greece, in the immediate aftermath of the general election here, is cited unconvincingly by ministers as the reason for their change of stance once votes had been safely cast. And yet Cameron points out that Britain is less vulnerable because of its non-membership of the single currency and predictions of growth. Senior ministers are following the economic policy they had always wanted to pursue in power, but did not dare to state in advance of the election.

Of course election campaigns should not be marked by total candour. Parties want to win rather than take part in some well-meaning seminar in which views are openly expressed. But there are limits to the number of policy shifts that are acceptable once an election has passed. The Liberal Democrats have already pushed it a bit with their U-turn over a VAT increase. Irrespective of the merits of the issue, their unequivocal opposition during the election means they do not have a mandate to vote for a big rise in tuition fees. Issues relating to trust erupted around Tony Blair when no weapons were found in Iraq, but at least he almost certainly assumed they were there in advance of the war. Messrs Clegg and Cable must have known their commitment on fees was unaffordable in advance of making it so unambiguously.

There is something of a mandate issue too for Ed Miliband, who made one of his few distinctive policy pitches in the leadership contest his support for a graduate tax. Reversing pledges in a battle to become leader is not as grave an offence as doing so persistently once a place in government is secured, but will not be easy and should not be. There is no point in being an aspiring leader who advances an idea and then rejects it when he or she has the chance to make it official policy.

Some of those who attended this week's Shadow Cabinet insist that reports of Alan Johnson's emphatic opposition to a graduate tax are wrong. Apparently much of the meeting was taken up examining the fairness, or lack of it, of the Browne report on funding and the level of cuts implied for higher education in next week's spending review.

There was no out of character semi-public display of dissent from Johnson at his new leader's first Shadow Cabinet meeting. Of course Johnson was the education minister who pioneered top-up fees through the Commons in 2002 and will know the problems with a graduate tax intimately. But there is a big difference between supporting top-up fees fixed across the board at £3,000 and ones where some of the universities will be able to charge more or less what they want.

Labour needs to clarify its position soon. As Miliband demonstrated in his highly effective debut at Prime Minister's Questions a leader is vulnerable when defending a policy that had not been thought through. Miliband chose to focus on the inevitable anomalies of Cameron/Osborne's plan to remove child benefit for higher earners. As Cameron/Osborne had opted to make the announcement at their conference partly as a tactical device and not as part of a coherent thought through programme, Miliband made hay.

His performance was a reminder of how easy Cameron has had it as a leader, facing Blair when his party wanted him out, Brown mainly in a state of despair following the non-election in 2007 and finally Harriet Harman as a stand-in. It felt yesterday as if battle had been joined at last, although not without big dangers for Miliband too. One Labour frontbencher expressed concern to me afterwards that Miliband was in danger of getting on the wrong side of the debate about fairness, both in relation to child benefit and tuition fees. We shall see.

What is almost a law in politics is that policies devised for short-term tactical reasons nearly always backfire on their authors, as Cameron/Osborne are discovering in power after firing several successful grenades at Labour when they were in opposition.

Labour's grenade in relation to top-up fees should relate more to regulating the market in universities rather than over the precise method of funding. If tuition fees are repaid on the basis of relatively comfortable incomes once students start to earn, there is not a big difference compared with a graduate tax, in terms of a student's financial calculation. But if the so called top universities are allowed to charge much higher fees more state-educated sixth-formers will turn away.

Oxbridge is daunting enough for many state-educated pupils without mountainous debts being added to the intimidating mix. At a time when the Coalition claims to be interested in social mobility, soaring fees for an elite would be a strange move, one that cements the current and uniquely English route to glory, cocooned public schools and Oxbridge. Revealingly, when Vince Cable gave a series of interviews to justify his conversion to higher top-up fees, he acknowledged that the potential for even greater inaccessibility of the more prestigious universities remained an acute concern. In which case Cable needs to establish a framework that prevents such a free-for-all from being realised. In order to justify such a level of government regulation some of the funding must continue to come from the state. Otherwise forget about social mobility and raise a glass to those born to lead the primrose path towards adulthood.

I sense we are reaching a new and clearer phase in British politics. Tony Blair used his memoir to support David Cameron's economic policies. Yesterday, Cameron cited Blair's former ally Alan Milburn as a supporter of his benefits policies. Tories, Cleggite Liberal Democrats and ultra-Blairites march as one after a time when they appeared deceptively to be in different places. Disillusioned Lib Dems look more hopefully in the direction of Ed Miliband. All will claim to be on the centre ground. There's another degree course, "The Tyranny of the Centre Ground". It's yours for £12,000.;