Poisoned legacy of tuition fees

SO after weeks of incendiary debate, vociferous protest and seemingly endless political manoeuvring, the Government has won the day on university tuition fees. But senior Liberal Democrats must today be questioning whether this victory was a price worth paying.

Never before has the third party been so bloodied by a single issue. Nick Clegg, in particular, will wonder if his reputation among core supporters will ever recover.

It looks clearer with each passing day that the Liberal Democrats' pre-election pledge to oppose tuition fee rises will haunt both Mr Clegg, and his party, right up to the next election and beyond.

Certainly, if yesterday's protests are anything to go by, the Lib Dems are taking much of the flak – their perceived treachery seemingly a greater crime among opponents than the Conservative policy itself.

Opinion polls suggest a near-total collapse in their core support. The grassroots are furious. And as yesterday's vote revealed, the Parliamentary party is deeply divided.

There is no question that the party has handled this issue badly, but the question must also be asked – what exactly did Liberal Democrats expect?

What is being witnessed is coalition government in action, the dominant party's policies supported by their junior partner in return for concessions along the way. And the irony is that for all the outrage among Lib Dem supporters, the concessions they have won are valuable.

On issues like the support for students from low-income families and the earning thresholds at which repayments begin, the Lib Dems have secured a far more progressive policy than would have been the case if the Tories were acting alone.

Yesterday's debate was also a perfect microcosm of the key challenges facing all three parties. Labour needs to show that it can offer credible alternatives to the cuts served up by the Government. The Conservatives still need to prove that they are a more compassionate party after 13 years out of office, and can deliver savings without hammering the poorest.

And the Lib Dems need to win back the electorate's trust. In this regard, the tuition fees controversy is just the beginning of a new era for British politics – and there is everything to play for.