Nick Clegg spent the first 20 minutes of Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions looking a little miserable. A wan smile did flicker across his lips at about 18 minutes in, but it didn’t spread to his eyes or stay very long at all. In fact, he appeared to be doing his best to fit the best ever P.G. Wodehouse description of a man looking like ‘a cat which has just been struck by a half-brick and is expecting another shortly’.
Fortunately for Clegg, the other half of the brick didn’t turn up. In fact, when the time came for Harriet Harman to savage the DPM, he appeared quite happy that she’d chosen tuition fees as her weapon. She asked about the new figures showing that the government’s trebling of tuition fees will end up costing the taxpayer more than the current system. Clegg replied enthusiastically:
‘Mr Speaker, the new figures show that there are now more people at university than ever before. New figures show that a higher proportion of youngsters from disadvantaged families are at university than ever before, new figures show that there’s a higher rate of participation in higher education from youngsters from black and minority ethnic backgrounds than ever before. New figures show there’s a higher rate of application to go to universities from our youngsters than ever before.
‘Surely rather than speculating about what people may or may not earn in 35 years, the party should celebrate the fact that more people are going to university and more people are going to university from disadvantaged backgrounds.’
Harman told him that he hadn’t answered the question and had instead produced bluster. She then said that the ‘government got its maths wrong’. Would the Lib Dems rule out any further tuition fee increases?
‘There is absolutely no need for a further increase because in fact we’ve just announced at the end of last year that universities will be able to take an unlimited number of students, we’re removing the cap on the number of British students going to British universities, there’s no cap on the number of overseas students, so there’s no need.’
So Clegg thinks there is no need to raise tuition fees again (at the moment anyway). But his ding-dong with Harman shows how much this has diminished as a problem for the Liberal Democrat leader. Tuition fees used to be like the Lib Dems’ ex-boyfriend that they didn’t want to talk about, but now all these new figures that Clegg has quoted have come out to show that the dire predictions of the Labour party haven’t come to fruition, Clegg can quite happily talk about university access. The half brick has turned into quite a useful serve.
What has become a running sore, though, is Clegg’s favourite policy: free school meals for infant school children. He was pressed by Diana Johnson on whether these meals would be hot, or cold packed lunches. Clegg replied:
‘They need to be healthy meals, they need to be provided to all toddlers and all young children in those first three years at primary school… Of course the majority of them will be hot, we’re not going to prescribe in a centralising manner that I know her party is so fond of, that they’re going to be hot in every single location across 24,000 schools in our country. But they need to be healthy, they need to be hot, they need to be freely available, that will benefit families to the tune of hundreds of pounds and that will boost social mobility across the country.’
After the debate, a source close to Clegg explained that schools wouldn’t be prevented from also offering salads in hot weather or cold packed lunches when they go on trips, but that the aim is for these meals to be hot. ‘This policy is going to happen,’ the source said repeatedly. But it hasn’t half caused a kerfuffle. Perhaps Clegg was looking a bit sad because he was trying to work out how it was going to happen. But cold free school meals and the Conservative opposition to the policy is (regardless of whether it’s actually a decent policy) a better running sore to have than tuition fees.