Liberal Democrats here in Brighton are divided on the Clegg tuition fees apology. Most of them feel it was worth a try, that it was necessary if the party is to get a hearing on other issues. But one Lib Dem minister has told me that he worries the apology is too complicated. He fears that anger will bubble back up when people realise what a few newspapers didn’t: that Clegg is apologising for making the promise, not breaking it.
On the Sunday Politics today, Danny Alexander conceded that he had signed the fees pledge after he had warned Nick Clegg that it was unaffordable. This is an embarrassing admission. It emphasies that the party leadership ran with the pledge despite knowing that it was a deeply flawed policy. It perhaps explains why Clegg felt the need to apologise: he had been told that this was a promise any British government could not keep.
Defenders of the LibDem leadership say that they were lumbered with the policy by the party, which simply refused to drop it. This is true. But the leadership was not obliged to campaign on it in the way they did. No one forced them to make a video promising an end to broken promises.
UPDATE Here’s the transcript:-
Danny Alexander: We were clear that this was an expensive pledge, that it would be difficult to afford under the financial circumstances that we face as a country. But as a democratic party where our party conference, our elected policy committee and so on have a big role in shaping our manifesto we decided – and I was part of this decision, I was the chair of our manifesto group – to include that policy in our manifesto. We then decided to sign up to that pledge.
Andrew Neil: What did you tell him [Nick Clegg] and how did he respond, Mr Alexander? You’re filibustering here, what did you tell him and how did he respond?
Danny Alexander: I don’t remember the details of the conversation that took place quite a few years ago, but what I’m saying to you is it was clear that this was a very expensive policy that given the financial circumstances facing the country it would be difficult to afford, and that’s why we took the approach we did in our manifesto, phasing it in over a number of years. But nonetheless, under the current financial circumstances it wasn’t affordable. We made a pledge that we couldn’t keep. We shouldn’t have done that, and that’s why Nick has apologised for it.
AN: Final question, Mr Alexander. You signed the NUS pledge, didn’t you? Was that before or after you warned Mr Clegg it was unaffordable?
DA: I did. Every Liberal Democrat MP signed that pledge. It’s something I regret, I’m sorry for, I wish I hadn’t done, because it wasn’t a promise that we could keep.
AN: Had you already told Mr Clegg it was unaffordable when you signed it?
DA: Well, I signed it during the election campaign. The discussions that you’re referring to took place way before the election campaign