With less than a week remaining before the Government announces the results of its Comprehensive Spending Review, all the talk is shot through with pessimism.
The pruning of the quangos was but a foretaste of the slashing and burning that is expected to come. So it was refreshing to learn yesterday that some public spending is still planned – even if there is not as much "new" money as it may seem, and that funds are to be released in a laudable cause.
As the Deputy Prime Minister announced with some satisfaction yesterday, £7bn is to be spent over four years to improve the education of England's poorest children. In particular, the Government has given the go-ahead for the introduction of a "pupil premium" – a Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge – that will follow children from deprived backgrounds through the school system. There is also to be a "student premium".
There should be no prizes for guessing why this decision was released when it was. Nick Clegg and his fellow Liberal Democrats in the Coalition had, until this point, endured a difficult week – perhaps the most difficult week since they entered government. Lord Browne's recommendation that universities should essentially be free to set their own tuition fees, plus the likelihood of greater flexibility on interest rates for student loans, presented Liberal Democrats with a dilemma.
The whole parliamentary party had signed a pre-election pledge to vote against higher university tuition fees, an undertaking calculated to attract student votes, and here they were presented with the prospect of an open-ended rise they could do nothing about. A few concessions, such as the raised salary threshold for starting repayments, were designed to make the prospect of higher fees more palatable, but still Liberal Democrat MPs find themselves accused of treachery and are likely to be divided when it comes to a vote.
Mr Clegg's announcement yesterday was sandwiched between the bad news for his party on tuition fees and what is likely to be even worse news when the Coalition's programme of spending cuts is revealed next Wednesday. As such, it contained a large element of political face-saving. But two things should be borne in mind. The overtly political aspect should not be allowed to obscure the fact that channelling help to the poorest pupils, from the earliest possible stage, is likely to be a better use of scarce resources than keeping university tuition fees artificially low. The penalties of deprivation start, and are most effectively addressed, very early. The extension of the Liberal Democrats' "pupil premium" to nursery education, and its renaming, in true Coalition fashion, a "fairness premium", make clear its purpose.
The second point is that the Liberal Democrats have not been left to give without receiving. The "pupil premium" was one of their trademark policies. It is now official Coalition policy with, apparently – and this must be monitored – the requisite money behind it. For all those disillusioned by what they see as Nick Clegg's "sell-out" to the Conservatives, here is another small reminder that this government is functioning more or less as a coalition should. The Liberal Democrats are junior partners, but they have made their presence felt. Out of government, it is unlikely they would have been able to achieve even this.
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