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Last week, Britain ‘celebrated’ the one year anniversary of the once blossoming relationship between Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg. Who can forget that lovely morning in the Downing Street rose garden when they teased each other about how much they used to hate each other only two short days ago? Meanwhile, everyone else pretended this wasn’t all extremely awkward and forced whilst severely doubting the sincerity of a single word. The omens for the Coalition were never fortuitous, but who then would have predicted that, one year on, the Liberal Democrats would receive the greatest drubbing of their entire political existence whilst the Tories were barely scratched? The wipe-out in Councils across the North of England would have been bad enough for Clegg and Co. But it is the AV referendum result that will leave the biggest sting, with the No to AV campaign using Clegg’s assumed incompetence as a key reason to vote against a change which could lead to more “dodgy backroom deals”.
There can be absolutely no doubt that, one way or another, it is the Lib Dem policy on tuition fees that has led to their almost overnight collapse as a credible political force. Whether you agreed with the Coalition policy on Higher Education or not, people from across the political spectrum have united in condemning the volte-face of those MPs who abandoned their pre-election pledge to prevent any rise in fees.
We will now never know, sadly, whether or not the British populace actually wanted AV as a voting system or not. Because there can be little doubt at all that the result on May 5 was, for many people, a chance to punish the Lib Dems and to reject the idea that any policy they espoused could be considered progressive. And the irony of this that will stick with the Lib Dems for longest and provide the most valuable lesson is this: it was their decision to prioritise a referendum of political reform, at the cost of their fees policy, which saw their change for reform ground into the dust. And for us as a nation, we learn a valuable lesson too. Sometimes it is bad timing, as much as bad politics, which has the most profound impact on our country’s future.
This becomes even clearer now that the dust has settled following the referendum. The news in the few tender days since May 5 has been dominated with tough talk from the Lib Dems about their new commitment to stand up to the Tories in Coalition and provide a moderating influence. It seems that, at last, principles may be put before the short term benefits of ministerial office. For those of us who remember the same things being said last year there will, no doubt, be a strong sense of scepticism. But however you feel about the rhetoric, the sad fact is that for students it is far too little, far too late. This is not an episode of Doctor Who and in real life, time cannot be rewritten. No amount of posturing now will cause Nick Clegg to honour his pre-election pledge to fight against and campaign against a rise in tuition fees.
So Nick Clegg, you must accept it. The Tories don’t want you in government with them and the honeymoon period of your rose garden romance is well and truly over. They made that clear enough during the AV campaign. But whether they want you or not, they still need you and your party. Cameron’s kind words since the election are a desperate attempt to keep Lib Dem bums off Opposition seats in the face of a Labour Party willing to accept mutineers. There’s no turning back the clock, Clegg, but there may still be some good you can do. And if you’re really lucky, you might just save your party’s, if not your own, future in the process.
In July, the Government will be passing a White Paper on Higher Education. Given last week’s leak that a policy under consideration was for the rich to buy places at the best Universities, I think we all have fairly low hopes for what it might achieve. But maybe, just maybe, and if you’re very, very lucky you, Nick Clegg, could be the man of the hour this time. The only question is – do you dare?