Leading article: The paradox of the new politics

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For a man who was painted into a corner by the result of the election in May, Nick Clegg has shown some skill in turning the situation to his party's advantage. In fact, he has shown a rather better understanding of the Liberal Democrats' core values than many of his critics. One of those values is the virtue of working with other parties, both as a way of representing the choices of a majority of the voters and as an end in itself. Paradoxically, though, his eagerness to make a success of co-operative politics may have harmed the long-term hope of fundamental reform of our political system.

In May, this newspaper advocated tactical voting in the hope of securing a deal between Labour and the Lib Dems, but we have to accept that the seat numbers made such an outcome almost impossible. Therefore, Mr Clegg and his party faced a big choice: to keep their distance from a Conservative minority government and fight for concessions issue by issue; or to go for "horizon" government with a common programme. The implication of the Lib Dem belief in co-operation between parties was that they should throw their lot in with the Tories and put heart and soul into making it work, as full partners rather than carpers – albeit unusually powerful ones – from the outside. Mr Clegg is right, in his interview with The Independent on Sunday today, to suggest that this was a test of his party's maturity. And he is right to recognise that this was bound to bring his party and its supporters face to face with some difficult choices.

We are not convinced, however, that he has made the right decision on two of those choices in particular.

The first was the decision to change sides from Alistair Darling's plan to reduce the deficit to George Osborne's. Mr Clegg, Danny Alexander and Vince Cable presented this as a change of conviction prompted by the Greek sovereign debt crisis and the advice of Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England. That it just happened to coincide with the election sows doubt about its authenticity. (Indeed, Mr Clegg said recently, "I changed my mind earlier than that... between March and the actual general election", which only makes it worse, because it was a change he concealed from the voters.)

However, what is even less plausible than the Lib Dems' change of mind is the tendency among Labour politicians to pretend that deep and painful spending cuts do not have to be made. This newspaper remains of the view that Mr Darling's approach was the right one. But the difference between the parties at the election was £6bn worth of cuts this year, a sum that has since been wiped out by statistical revision; for later years, the debate was one of timing rather than scale.

Similar arguments attend the future of university funding. We understand the big argument in favour of higher tuition fees, that it ensures buoyant revenue for universities, tied to the quality of courses and independent of the government. But, ultimately, that is outweighed, for us, by the clinching argument that higher fees will deter some young people who would otherwise go to university. That would be a loss not just to potential graduates themselves but to society as a whole. We understand the technical difficulties with a graduate tax, but they are not insuperable. Scotland has managed without fees, and Wales intends to freeze them at current levels. We accept that there is less difference between the two main choices than the protagonists pretend, but if "fairness" is the coalition's watchword and if we are "all in this together", a progressive tax system is surely the best way to pay for wider educational opportunity.

That said, there is no doubt that the Government's tuition-fee proposals will pass the Commons on Thursday. Then the next big test for the coalition will be May's referendum on changing the voting system. Here Mr Clegg may regret his choices on spending cuts and tuition fees. They have had the unfortunate effect of crystallising a latent unease about electoral reform: that the apparently attractive notion of parties working together has turned out to be an excuse for the opportunistic ditching of solemn promises. That is an unfair charge, but there is enough truth in it to be damaging.

By his courageous attempt to make the long-held liberal dream of multi-party government work, Mr Clegg may have undermined the prospect of a lasting change to a fairer voting system.

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