Nick Clegg, heir to Blair
It is not only Cameronian Conservatives who read Tony Blair’s book looking for lessons for government. A Liberal Democrat close to Nick Clegg told me they had just read the bit (pages 482-490) about the tuition fees vote of 2004 – which Blair won with a majority of five and which consumed the entire Downing Street machine for weeks.
It was truly knife-edge stuff. It seems strange to relate that now, but it really was … I always used to think, though, that if you go out on a point of principle, well, there are worse ways of exiting.
It was a close thing, but once the vote was won, it ceased to be a big issue. The Lib Dems did well among students in the 2005 election, but deferred fees were not a great vote mover and there was a countervailing benefit among elite opinion, which recognised that it was the right thing to do.
The same applies this time. Clegg has suffered serious and lasting reputational damage for breaking a promise, but not necessarily for the policy itself. On that, the fever may subside if one condition is met.
As Matthew d’Ancona says in his Sunday Telegraph column today, Clegg’s pitch for the next election is as the “tribune of the disadvantaged”. Almost the only test that really matters for the Lib Dems is whether the proportion of students from disadvantaged homes going to university has risen noticeably by 2015 or not.
This is controversial: d’Ancona recalls the row over Laura Spence, whose case was raised by Gordon Brown 11 years ago (although that was partly so controversial because the Chancellor got the facts wrong).
If the proportions of state-school, working-class and disadvantaged children going to university has risen, Clegg may have a chance of saving his political skin. If not, not.
Photograph: PATagged in: blair a journey, nick clegg, student finance
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