Credit where credit is due, today’s Daily Telegraph interview with Nick Clegg covers a range of substantive policy issues and gives the Deputy Prime Minister the space to give nuanced answers where the question requires them.
The biggest story is Clegg’s clear steer on a graduate tax as the way to square financial demands with the party’s dislike of tuition fees:
While David Willetts, the universities minister, said this week that it was for Lord Browne’s ongoing study to recommend increased tuition fees or a tax, Mr Clegg comes down firmly for the latter. “[Poorer] children are very intimidated by levels of debt. That is why I and my party have always been critical of tuition fees. The tricky bit is finding a progressive way [under which] the graduate who goes into the City pays a different contribution to someone who enters low-paid social work and that the money goes back to universities rather than into Treasury coffers.”
But some form of graduate payback is, he confirms, the preferred option. “It’s one we think is acceptable. The perception of [tuition fees] is that it imposes a wall of debt as you walk through the entry gates of university. This has a chilling effect on applications. It sends a signal which seems to be discouraging.”
Mr Clegg acknowledges “workability” problems, adding: “We’re genuinely waiting for Lord Browne to try to work through the problems. But the signal I’m sending to you is that we will look very kindly at a system that is fair, progressive and encourages students from [poorer] backgrounds to apply.”
This sounds a ringing endorsement of a graduate tax. “As soon as you mention a tax, people go a bit loopy,” he says. “It’s saying that students make a contribution, but we’re not going to do it in a way that stops students applying, and we’re going to make it dependent on how much benefit you get from going to university.”
Nick Clegg is also asked about Simon Hughes’s recent comments, pithily reported on Lib Dem Voice by Stephen Tall as Simon Hughes states the bleedin’ obvious, sparks news media frenzy:
“I would gently remind those colleagues who have misgivings that Coalition politics is the different politics we have advocated in the past.” Is that a rebuke to Simon Hughes, the Left-leaning Lib Dem deputy leader, who has suggested a backbench veto option for Coalition policies?
“No. To be fair to him, if he said the weather was cloudy, there would be headlines about Simon Hughes casting a shadow over the Coalition. He was saying that if you do something very big outside the Coalition agreement, then of course MPs must have their say.”
Nick Clegg also used the interview to reinforce the party’s scepticism on Trident:
Mr Clegg casts doubt on whether the £20billion renewal scheme will ever happen. “As Deputy Prime Minister, I’m committed to the replacement of the deterrent, but I will continue to argue for the alternatives, and there are alternatives. We’ve set up a value-for-money study to see if there are ways of doing it which don’t cost the earth, and I’ll see what that comes up with.’’
As for Philip Green, whose appointment resulted in public criticism from several Liberal Democrat MPs, Nick Clegg’s answer is starkly minimal:
Sir Philip’s role as the Coalition “cuts tsar” sits uneasily with Mr Clegg’s promise of a crackdown on tax avoidance. Did he know of the appointment? “It was all done by the right government procedures. I was away on holiday.”