Monday, 6 December 2010

Lib Dem Highland meltdown over tuition fees

There is no formal pairing system operating in the Commons - when two opposing MPs arrange to miss a whipped vote to negate their absence. But if Inverness airport is shut by snow for the next few days then we might be granted one in the crucial tuition fees debate this Thursday.

Imagine the scene in the VIP cabin in departures at Dalcross this morning as Danny Alexander (Treasury, for) and Charles Kennedy (Lib Dem, against) wait patiently for their delayed London flight to be called.

The two Highland MPs, with neighbouring constituencies, represent the fight for the soul of the Lib Democrats, a battle of power against principle. Kennedy, with a Highland Liberal tradition behind him, has said he'd find it hard to support the move to triple tuition fees in England, after signing an election pledge not to do so.

Alexander, who would be admired in Brussels for his technocratic passion, has no real political heritage to fall back on here and can only be driven further into the embrace of the coalition by this week's events.

Stop press: enough speculating. It's coming through that Michael Crockart, the new Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West, has threatened to resign as unpaid parliamentary private secretary to Michael Moore in protest over the tuition fees vote.

It looks like the Lib Dem whips, headed by Alastair Carmichael from Orkney and Shetland, are putting the screws on MPs, to vote loyally or resign. Crockart has said that he will have no option but to resign in that case. It's a long time until Thursday though.

Interesting how the whole Lib Dem fight over tuition fees is being played out against a Scottish backdrop. Kennedy and Alexander, Crockart and Carmichael, not forgetting Menzie Campbell and Michael Moore - all finding themselves on opposing sides. Can't work out which side are the Covenanters yet.

Footnote: I don't usually post anonymous comment or respond, it's so much bolder to put your name to a strongly held opinion. But someone has posted: "Higher Education is a devolved issue. This is a solely English issue. What business is it of these interfering Scots? They should keep their noses (especially those with bright red ones) out of it!"

There are implications for Scotland in the tuition fees vote in that the Browne review recommended to cut two-thirds of the teaching grant paid by the Treasury to English universities once they start charging fees. This, Labour argue, could have a knock-on effect in Scotland, via the Barnett Formula, to the tune of £400 million.

Obviously there are the effects of student refugees seeking sanctuary from higher fees in the south putting pressure on places in Scotland. There is also the academic and financial standing of Scottish universities, which will not have the same level of student fees pouring in. Unless, that is, they introduce fees too, as Vince Cable recommended. I was right, don't respond to anonymous comment, you'll spend all day on it.

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