Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader, used a fringe meeting at the party's conference in Bournemouth yesterday to warn leader Nick Clegg not to abandon its pledge to abolish student tuition fees.
The Lib Dems have won support among students as the only main party that backs an end to the fees, but Mr Clegg admitted in this newspaper on Saturday that the policy may have to be shelved because of the recession.
Concerns within the party over the policy U-turn had been building in the run-up to the conference. Mr Kennedy said that the pledge, which would cost around £2.5bn a year, had "served us well" and that ditching it would risk losing voters. "In terms of parliamentary reality, these age groups were important to us at the last election – some of the gains that we made, not least against Labour," he said.
Danny Alexander, the party's manifesto chief, admitted that there were deep concerns within the party about changing the tuition fees policy, but said it may have to be downgraded as an "aspiration" in order to ease Britain's debt levels. "The policy on scrapping tuition fees is a good policy," said Mr Alexander. "But, at this point, we have to treat people like grown ups. We have to look at all our policies in the round. That is what we are going to be doing in the manifesto process, to work out what we can afford and what we can't afford."
Mr Kennedy also provoked more awkward questions for Mr Clegg by suggesting that the Tories' hostility to the EU would prevent the Lib Dems forming a coalition government with them. "It has always seemed to me that this is one of several straws that would break any camel's back," Mr Kennedy said. "I just don't see how we could make common ground with a Cameron-Hague government on the European issue. I mean, pigs would fly."
Mr Clegg has consistently refused to speculate on which party the Lib Dems would support in the event of a hung parliament after the next election, a result predicted by some polls.
Meanwhile, Lib Dems backed a call from the scientist Richard Dawkins for a radical reform of Britain's libel laws. Professor Dawkins, best known as the author of The God Delusion, argued that London had become the "libel capital of the world" because laws were currently skewed against free speech. "There must be redress if you are maliciously attacked in a way that damages you," he told delegates during a guest appearance at the conference. "But if such a law is cast too wide, it has disastrous consequences on the public interest – not least in the areas of science and medicine where the stakes are high. The vulnerable need to be protected from unproven or fraudulent claims or cures."
The party's Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, will use his keynote speech today to accuse George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, of spreading "hysterical nonsense about the country being bankrupt". He will say the Tories pose as tough cutters while committing themselves to expensive spending programmes. "These people are so arrogant they think they can cruise into Downing Street without anyone noticing," he will say.