Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Vince Cable: Party Before Country?

It's been interesting to see that the justification the LibDems (and David Cameron for that matter) are putting forward for abstaining on the tuition fees vote is based upon the provision in the coalition agreement.

However, having just had a look at said provision, I cannot see how it can be interpreted so as to permit Vince Cable to abstain on the vote.

It reads:

"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."

It's pretty straightforward. If a LibDem cannot accept the Government's response, they can abstain. But, as the formulator of the response, Vince Cable clearly doesn't satisfy the "cannot accept" condition. So what's his justification?

There's another point here, and that's the 'country before party' argument. If Vince Cable is seriously arguing that he will abstain out of solidarity with his party colleagues you have to question his priorities. Surely the country's interests come first.


Caron said...

As a Liberal Democrat I agree that Vince should own the proposals he has worked so hard to make fairer than they would have been if the Tories had been governing alone.

I would have preferred for university tuition to be funded from general taxation but unfortunately that's not deliverable with the way the House of Commons is made up. We are but 57 out of 650 and both Labour and Tories support fees.

What I will not entertain, though, is any suggestion that Vince is putting party before country. He could have sat back and let the Tories put together a package which didn't do anything for those on the lowest incomes and effectively shut off the possibility of higher education to the poor, but he didn't.

Free tuition is a landmark Lib Dem policy and to go against it takes a great deal of political courage, even if you are delivering the next best possible thing.

The reason that there are so many efforts to get the Lib Dem group to all vote the same way are because of the pain dealt out to parties who are seen to be disunited in the media. I would prefer our lot not to be so control freaky as I think there are probably the numbers for it to pass.

Credibility and common sense are more important to me than synthetic unity.

Tim said...

The problem with this argument is that it presumes to know what is good for the country.

Perhaps abstaining or voting against is putting the country before the Tory party? Splendid. It's time the Lib Dems grew a backbone and started acting as the conscience of the government.

Philip said...

Given that the Conservatives have an outright majority in the Commons if the Lib-Dems abstain, does it matter?

If some were voting against then Vince could have to vote for to put "country" first, but the country gets its law and the party gets to abstain. What's the problem outside of the Westminster Village?

Tom said...

I agree. I voted Lib Dem, but I think Vince, and indeed the majority of Liberal Democrat MPs, are passing the buck here.

A famous Liberal once suggested that when the facts change, you need to change your mind. But the LDs appear to be putting their heads in the sand over this issue.

Election pledges and manifesto commitments are not an excuse to ignore the national interest. The NUS want to ignore the debate to be had on student finance regardless of what is actually in the best interests for students and low earners, it makes me pretty mad.

If we had a Liberal Democrat majority, perhaps we could seriously examine the feasibility of a Graduate tax or a grant system. I think the evidence suggests that the alternative of a graduate tax would not work due to our international obligations to Europe - the system would have to look something like the system that is on the table.

Pensfold said...

Surely it is for the Liberal Democrat MPs to decide what they find unacceptable. The party policy agreed at their conference is for university fees to be eliminated over time not increased.

Pensfold said...

Surely it is for the Liberal Democrat MPs to decide what they find unacceptable. The party policy agreed at their conference is for university fees to be eliminated over time not increased.

Alan said...

Good point, Iain. This recent "abstain en masse" proposal is putting party interests first.

I am also amazed at how few opponents of the govt proposals actually understand how they will affect graduates. For example, if there were a graduate tax (large enough to pay for the tuition), then everyone earning between 6k and 21k would be worse off, each month, every month. Same is true if tuition was paid for out of general taxation.

Why are these so-called "progressives" so keen to impose an additional tax burden on the poorest?

It couldn't be that champagne socialists/leftie LDs like the idea of helping the poor, so long as they don't have to shoulder a burden, could it?

DespairingLiberal said...

When it comes to the vote, the LibDems will play their usual fairly shabby game and ensure that just enough votes are there for it to go through - Cable and Clegg will vote for it and do hang-wringing late-night apologias about "minor changes" that "barely proved acceptable, etc, etc, yawn, yawn.

Amazing the lure of continued ministership!

Meanwhile the real agenda - Danny Alexander and George Osborne and Nick Clegg and David Cameron - ultra-neocons the lot of them - will press on without these trivial interruptions. The hedge funds must flow, to paraphrase Dune.

Sir Norfolk Passmore said...

Surely the point is that the Lib Dem leadership have made a deal with the backbenches that they will abstain with them if the backbenchers don't go all the way and vote against.

Ironically, the best way for Cable to get his legislation through in this case is actually not to vote for it, since this will prevent his backbench colleagues trooping into the "no" lobby!

AJ said...

As a lawyer, I think your interpretation of this provision is quite flawed:

"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."

The Government's response to Lord Browne's report is clearly one that Liberal Democrats (as a party) cannot accept. Therefore, Liberal Democrat MPs (including Vince Cable MP) are to be allowed to abstain in the vote.

The key term in this provision is "Liberal Democrats cannot accept". It does not state "individual Liberal Democrat MPs" or "Liberal Democrat ministers" but rather "Liberal Democrats". This can only be interpreted as the party as a whole. Since it is clear that the Liberal Democrat party cannot accept the Government's response, its MPs are being allowed to abstain. The coalition agreement provision does not include a special proviso for Lib Dem ministers of even the minister whose department has helped put forward the Government response.

This is why Vince Cable is being very clear that the Liberal Democrats as a party are going to have to work out how to vote on the proposals.

That said, I think the proposals are fair and the Lib Dems should accept them. I just want to make it clear why the Coalition Agreement is allowing the current situation.

MikeyP said...

A Libdem putting country before party? Get real, Iain.

trevorsden said...

Cable could quote solidarity with a vote of LD MPs.

Then get on with the job.

this is really something over nothing.

Can I repeat to your assembled mass readership that the IFS reported that the policy would be less expensive for the poorest 30% of students, so the central tenet that it could deny education to the poorest is a load of bollocks.

So the LDs need to put their little pre election stunt behind them and vote with a clear conscience since the policy is not as draconian as they feared.

Stephen Wigmore said...

If Clegg and Cable abstaining is the price of all Lib Dems abstaining rather than some voting against. Then that is almost certainly best for their party, for the government and for the country.

If the Lib Dems mass abstain on this legislation that is effectively letting it pass, since they know the Conservatives outnumber the other parties.

If that lets the Conseratives pass the legislation which they support while letting the Lib Dems abstain on this issue they would normally be entirely opposed to then that seems an excellent compromise.

It keeps the Lib Dems together and in the Coalition. It keeps the Government together and by keeping the government together helps the country by giving it the only government willing to take the tough choices we need over the next 4 years.

Torontory said...

It is preposterous that the Secretary of State introducing legislation should do anything other than vote for that legislation. Hiding behind vague wording in a Coalition agreement that has been overtaken by events is simply unacceptable. This is what government is all about. Any government minister of whatever party that fails to voter in favour of the proposals should be made to resign. The LDs need to recognise that with government, come responsibilities.

Norfolk Blogger said...

Iain, it might be party before government, but let's not claim this is for the country. It is the Conservative Party, not the country.

geraldallen said...

Oh dear;Poor old Vince & co tying themselves in knots to try and justify agreements freely entered into.Tuition fees are just the tip of the iceberg,and the students are going to be joined 10,000s of angry protesters as the cuts start to bite.Early days yet but they know that they are facing electoral annihilation; particularly in their local council base.And when Cameron gets his programme through he will throw them to the winds.Still theres always the House of Lords and Brussels.

troymolloy said...

Your logic is flawless here, except the 'Party Before Country' bit, which seems a bit rich coming from you Iain, if I may be so rude as to say so.

Time and again you have written on here that the idea of, say, a PPS voted against government policy is, basically, wrong. But that attitude, which is putting one's party first, is just not in line with what an MP is supposed to be there to do. I know it's an unfashionable viewpoint in the Westminster Village these days, but MPs are there to represent the interests of their constituents.

MPs are worthy only of opprobrium if they fall into line with their party's official view in knowing disavowal of their constituents' views. This includes cases where the official view is to abstain.

Mostly Ordinary said...

So we have a clear case of MPs making personal commitments to their constituents and then weaselling out of it. If MPs feel no compulsion to live up to such a specific promise really what is the point of the much talked about constituency link?

We may as well go fall PR, because it seems we're just picking a party.

Windsor Tripehound said...

@Philip said...
Given that the Conservatives have an outright majority in the Commons if the Lib-Dems abstain, does it matter?

Collective responsibility is a cornerstone of our system of cabinet government, so the answer is yes, it does matter.

If Cable can't accept the decision of the cabinet then the only honourable course is for him to resign.

However, it seems that the words "honourable" and "Lib-Dem" don't blend well together.