By Paul Goodman
What doesn't happen in the Commons is sometimes as interesting as what does. Take yesterday's session of Business Questions and its single question on tuition fees, on which I make three snapshot observations.
- Vince Cable spent much of his time placating fellow Liberal Democrats – in exchanges that look suspiciously pre-planned.
The question was Charles Kennedy's. It could have been a straightforward assault on the Government's plan from a former Liberal Democrat leader who's adamantly and publicly opposed to it. But although Kennedy made his opposition to the proposal clear – "I cannot support the thrust and direction of Government policy on this one" – he went on to make an emollient enquiry about Scotland, which Cable then called "constructive". The exchanges read to me as though the two men had agreed what to say before the session, which often happens in the Commons when an MP of one Party has a question to a colleague.
- Cable was quick on his feet in dealing with John Denham.
– Denham quoted figures claiming that better-off student would be disadvantaged by the plan.
– Cable said the analysis "does not properly consider the true present value of the payments that people will have to make".
– Denham replied: "When my building society starts asking me to pay my mortgage in net present value, I will do so. Until then, I will talk pounds and pence like everybody else."
– And Cable came back with: "The right hon. Gentleman has used the analogy of mortgage payments, which is interesting. No building society or bank that I am aware of would exempt people from any payments until they were earning £21,000 a year, which is the progressive element that we are trying to introduce.
- Not a single Conservative MP intervened from the backbenches.
The Government's student finance proposals have been a big topic this week. The Whips would have regarded it as "helpful" for Tory MPs to give their Coalition colleague support. There are several reasons why they may not have done so. Few may have been in the Chamber. Those that were there may regard Cable with less warmth than they view, say, David Laws. But I suspect that the main reason for the silence is that while most Conservative MPs will eventually vote for the proposals in the lobbies – I'm assuming legisaltion is required – they're uneasy at present about voicing support in the Chamber. This may be because they see the "progressive graduate contribution" as a graduate tax by another name. Or, more likely, because their constituents aren't exactly going to welcome to move. Cable and, in particular, David Willetts, need to get them onside. This was the dog that didn't bark.