The decision of Jenny Willott to resign and join the other two Welsh Liberal Democrat MPs to vote against their government means that the Welsh wing of the party is pretty unified on tuition fees and at odds with the party’s UK leadership. Does that amount to a split ?
The truth is, the Liberal Democrat party is federal which means the Welsh party led by Kirsty Williams is, in theory at least, an autonomous operation making its own policies within the framework of a UK party, even if Welsh members in parliament are expected to toe the UK line.
There have been differences before, most notably over plans for St. Athan. But party leaders and members here, whatever their misgivings, are largely supportive of the Westminster coalition.
And in practice, most people don’t register this federalism business, just as voters, politicians and journalists often fail to grasp the realities of devolution in terms of the difference between UK government and the Assembly government.
And whatever the rights and wrongs of policies, promises and the reality of coalition government, the polls and the protests show that the Lib Dems are taking the worst of the flak on tuition fees, while their Conservative partners aren’t.
As Iain Martin of the Wall Street Journal points out the Lib Dems are perceived as compromising more than the Tories:
“Clegg was prepared to ditch one of his promises to deliver for the coalition on fees but Cameron clings to free TV licences for the over 75s and the winter fuel payment to wealthy pensioners whilst talking constantly about hard choices.”
Nick Clegg is said to be taking the long view, convinced that in time people will see his party’s difficult decisions as being the right ones.
Here in Wales, however, time is a luxury the Liberal Democrats don’t have: the Assembly election is fewer than five months away.
Fair or unfair and regardless of resignations and rebellions, Welsh Lib Dems could suffer from the fallout of tuition fees and other difficult aspects of coalition decision-making.
The other parties are already making the most of the Lib Dem’s discomfort. Plaid Cymru is offering free membership to students whilst Labour is doing the same for £1.
I won’t adapt Labour’s clear red water metaphor, because yellow water conjures up unpleasant images. But the Welsh Lib Dems do need to look at the way that Rhodri Morgan managed to keep Welsh Labour loyal to but different from his UK party if they’re going to avoid a miserable May.