Fees protest taking heat off Tories; and good luck to Ken Clarke re mental health in prisons
Posted on 7 December 2010 | 9:12am
When was the last time you saw David Cameron, George Osborne, Michael Gove or David Willetts being put under real pressure to make the case for the trebling of tuition fees?
I ask because it is their policy every bit as much as it is that of the Lib Dems in the coalition. Indeed, more so. It is their policy full stop, with the Lib Dems useful ideological cover.
The protests against the policy have helped shoot very large holes through the ideological cover. But they have also helped the Tories escape their own role in having to make an argument. It is all about Clegg and Co. Even the rebellion of David Davis is being seen less as a difficulty for Cameron than it is for Clegg, because Davis’ argument cuts right across the Lib Dem leader’s (thus far failed) attempts to say the policy is progressive.
This focus on the perfidious pledge-breaking Lib Dems also plays into the Tories’ longer-term strategy. As an election nears, the Tories will want to be out on their own again, and seeing their coalition partners undermined bit by bit over the Parliament, their integrity, honesty and middle-of-the-road decency slashed to bits, will not harm Cameron one bit come a general election.
Of course the Lib Dems specifically pledged to vote against Tory tuition fee rises, which is why the protests have such potency and cause them such embarrassment.
But I cannot help thinking that on all sorts of levels, they are playing into the Tories’ hands, and getting heat sent in one direction only, when at least some of it should be warming Cameron, is a result for Number 10.
Meanhwile good luck to Ken Clarke as he tries to reform attitudes in his party towards prison, and in particular the issue of addiction and mental illness in prisons.
On the news last night, though we could have done without all the shots of the back of Nick Robinson’s ear – why do these people think they have to be in every shot? – here was a politician setting out a policy that most of his grassroots and many MPs will instincitvely oppose, and doing so because he had thought it through and he thought it was right.
Osborne will have gone along with it for financial reasons. For him, it is not so much that prison works, but prison costs. Clarke is doing it because he genuinely believes in a different approach. Where he will get into difficulty is when he finds that the mental health services he wants to use for the treatment he rightly says many prisoners need are also being cut.
He is promising to divert thousands of prisoners from custody onto treatment programmes. Sounds sensible. However, such treatment programmes are already under threat, and we need to make sure that the resources for this part of his new policy are not being provided at the expense of others who need mental health support, and have never committed a crime in their lives.