Vince Cable the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, disclosed last night that he would vote in favour of raising student tuition fees in next week's crucial Commons vote, only to backtrack in a later interview. Mr Cable, whose department has responsibility for universities, said: "Obviously I have a duty as a minister to vote for my own policy – and that is what will happen."
His stance – days after he suggested he could abstain – raises the prospect of an embarrassing three-way split among Liberal Democrat MPs. Thirteen, including the former leaders Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, have said they would vote against increasing the fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year, while others are planning to abstain.
Liberal Democrat leaders had sought to reach a compromise under which all 57 of their MPs would maintain a united front by abstaining en masse. The coalition Government agreement gives the party's MPs the right to abstain on any move to raise tuition fees.
But that position would leave Mr Cable open to ridicule – not least because he has argued that it is thanks to his party's intervention that the proposed fee structure has been made more progressive.
He looks certain to be joined by Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and other senior Liberal Democrat ministers in supporting the increases in next Thursday's Commons division. Their votes will guarantee that the contentious measure is passed.
The Business Secretary told his local paper, the Richmond and Twickenham Times, that he had contemplated abstention as an "olive branch" to colleagues who were struggling with the issue. But he also said: "There is a dilemma. I'm very clear I regard the policy as right and as a member of the Cabinet I am collectively responsible for the policy. There is no doubt that is what I should do."
Liberal Democrats have been wrestling for weeks with the decision over how they should vote on tuition fees. A recent three-hour meeting of their MPs came to no conclusion and a planned conference in London today to discuss the subject was scrapped over fears that students would stage demonstrations.
* However, last night he moved back from his comments, when asked about them on student radio.
Challenged over his newspaper interview, the Business Secretary said: "I didn't announce anything. I think there might have been some slight misunderstanding.
"What I did try to explain was that the Liberal Democrats as a parliamentary party will be deciding as a group how they will vote on Thursday and I would imagine that in the next few days there will be clarity on that issue.
"I have my own views as an individual and as the Cabinet minister responsible, but the decision on how we vote in Parliament - it is true in our party, it's true in the Conservatives and it's true in the Labour Party - is decided as a group, collectively, and that is how we will make it."