The Lib Dem leadership has also, of course, been dropping its own commitments willy-nilly. Yes, part of this is to do with the necessity of coalition compromise, but not all of it is. Like Cameron, the party leaders in the Cabinet are subtly implying that the Lib Dem manifesto is something that it’s positively right for them to discard as they see fit.
Vince Cable (the one who’s allegedly a bit of a disgruntled lefty) offered a fine case study this week on tuition fees. On the subject of the pledge (“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament”), he told the Commons:
Like many Members, I wanted to ensure that my children's and my grandchildren's generations enjoyed that free system of university education. In an ideal world, that is what we would do, but we are not in an ideal world. We are in a world in which we have inherited a massive financial mess. We have come to terms with reality, and it is time that the right hon. Gentleman and his friends did the same.
Implication: Before the election, even though everyone knew full well about the big deficit, the Lib Dems were not in touch with reality; now, he, Clegg and the rest are having to shake off some of the party’s delusions so that they can run the country properly.
I signed that pledge with my colleagues, and I have explained the reasons why I did so. It was a stand from a commitment to try to keep universities free, which is what I enjoyed. I have explained, however, that in the current financial situation, which is truly appalling and which we inherited, all commitments and pledges will have to be re-examined from first principles.
Implication: And it’s not just fees. A lot of what his party said before the election was impractical rubbish, and he’ll have to bin a good amount of it.
The DUP’s Willie McCrea tried to challenge him on the ‘financial mess’ card, which he keeps playing as a fig leaf when disowning his party’s policies, and got an answer that in part was frank but refused to give any kind of explanation:
Is the Secretary of State telling the House that he did not understand that the United Kingdom was in dire financial straits when he signed the pledge five months ago?
Vince Cable: Of course we realised that the financial position of the country was serious. We must now make very difficult choices on the back of that, which I am sure is understood as well in Northern Ireland as it is everywhere else in the UK.
Implication: He fears that his party members did not understand the financial position (and politics forced him to play along with them); he, Clegg and other senior Lib Dems in government are U-turning not out of unexpected fiscal necessity but because they think their party was wrong – and perhaps they always did.
*Darling’s March Budget put the deficit at 11.8% of GDP in 2009/10, then 11.1, 8.5, 6.8, 5.3 and 4.0.
The OBR’s report in June put the deficit at 11.1% of GDP in 2009/10, then 10.5, 8.3, 6.6, 5.0 and 3.9. This was after the Greek crisis had supposedly made everything worse and before Osborne’s Budget had supposedly made everything better.