Peter Hoskin

Labour stumble into tomorrow’s tuition fee vote

Labour stumble into tomorrow's tuition fee vote
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Oh look, Alan Johnson has performed a hasty Reverse Cable. Only a few days ago, the Shadow Chancellor suggested that he didn't believe a graduate tax – Ed Miliband's chosen policy – could work. Yet, in a wilting Thunderer column (£) for the Times today, he now claims that "there is a very strong case for a graduate tax." From unworkable to strong, in only four days. Sounds like a disclaimer for Ikea flatpack furniture, not a policy position.

In a separate article, the Times characterises this as a minor victory for Ed Miliband – and so, in some respects, it is. He has managed to rein his Chancellor on this issue, if not on 50p tax, and the Labour leadership are now backing the same policy, albeit a misguided one. But this situation still typifies the party's clumsy response to the brouhaha over tuition fees. Where they might have struck some blows against the coalition, they have looked uncertain and directionless. Aside from Alan Johnson's interventions, it is difficult to remember one thing that a shadow minister has said on the matter.

I do wonder what lies behind this reticence on Labour's part. An unclear sense of policy doesn't help, of course. Nor do public differences between the party's boss and his economic sidekick. But I wouldn't be too surprised if Ed Miliband were also distancing himself as far away as possible from the student protests – not wanting to get involved in an issue that has stoked so much leftist fury, for fear of refuelling the 'Red Ed' bonfire. If so, it might be understandable. But, taken too far, it might also limit Labour's ability to oppose.

Meanwhile, it has been confirmed that all Lib Dem ministers – even Norman Baker – will vote in favour of the coalition's policy tomorrow. This has been an incredibly erratic period for Clegg's party too. But he looks now to have avoided some of the worst potential embarrassments.