Chaos in Lib Dem ranks as vote on tuition fees creates party split

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Nick Clegg has failed in an attempt to head off a presentational disaster for his party, and Liberal Democrat MPs will split three ways this week when the Commons votes on plans to almost treble university tuition fees.

Tension is mounting at Westminster ahead of Thursday's crunch vote on the Coalition's proposal to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 a year in fees.

Government whips say approval of the package is "not certain" because of the chaos in Liberal Democrat ranks. "It's not in the bag yet," said one source. Whips believe the vote is so tight that a handful of Tory MPs could scupper the fees increase by opposing it.

A plan for all 57 Liberal Democrats to abstain, which would have ensured the Government a majority, has collapsed after about 10 backbenchers insisted on voting against the fees rise. To counteract that effect, Nick Clegg, and Vince Cable, who is responsible for higher education as Business Secretary, will vote in favour.

But Mr Clegg is not even sure yet that all five Liberal Democrat Cabinet ministers will support the package, as he wishes. Danny Alexander, the Chief Treasury Secretary, and Michael Moore, the Scotland Secretary, will follow his lead. But Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary and the man Mr Clegg beat for the Liberal Democrat leadership in 2007, is keeping his cards close to his chest. He is due to return from the climate change talks in Cancun, Mexico, for Thursday's vote but one Liberal Democrat source admitted: "He is maintaining radio silence."

Liberal Democrat MPs will make another attempt to narrow their differences at Westminster tomorrow. Privately, Mr Clegg is resigned to them splitting three ways and his priority now is to ensure the vote does not leave lasting wounds.

He is expected to reject calls to impose a "tough" three-line whip on Liberal Democrat ministers to support the fees hike, preferring a "tender" approach under which they would be allowed to abstain, in line with the Coalition agreement in May.

Some Liberal Democrat activists are urging the party's MPs to oppose the rise because the party pledged to phase out fees at this year's election. They are describing Thursday as "our moment of truth" and comparing the vote to Tony Blair's Commons vote on the Iraq war. David Allen, a councillor in Newbury, said: "A vote to sit on the fence would only proclaim that we are hypocrites as well as turncoats.

"The options are to trash the Coalition or to trash the Liberal Democrat brand. There is no third way ... If all our backbenchers vote against, while our ministers preserve their positions by abstaining as the Coalition agreement allows them to do, it should in principle be enough to defeat the proposals."

Norman Lamb, Mr Clegg's chief political adviser and the MP for North Norfolk, said the Liberal Democrats had still not made up their mind on how to vote. "This is difficult, it's messy," he told the BBC's Politics Show. "My very strong preference, as is the case for Nick, is to vote in favour."

In an attempt to persuade Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain rather than oppose, ministers may announce more details of a £300m plan to boost the number of children from poor families going to university. Up to 20,000 could benefit from two "free" years without fees. Their first year could be financed by universities, which would in return be allowed to charge between £6,000 and £9,000 in fees. Students would fund their second year themselves, and the Government would pay their third year's fees.

The cost of the national scholarship programme would be split 50-50 between the Government and the universities. It could also assist mature students. Undergraduates who want to convert to other subjects by retaking A-levels could benefit from three "free" years out of four. A task force, including student representatives, to finalise the plans will be announced today.

But Les Ebdon, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and a spokesman for the newer and smaller universities, said: "I think those from families and homes that have not previously had anyone go to university will think very hard before going, because they won't have seen the life-transforming nature of a university education."

Aaron Porter, the president of the National Union of Students (NUS), believes that the Government's concessions would have a limited impact. "It is giving a little with one hand but taking considerably more with the other hand," he said.

In an email to Labour members outlining the party's policy, seen by The Independent, the shadow Business Secretary John Denham says it is "moving towards a graduate tax", and that it would cut the university teaching budget by less than the Government. It would also ensure that universities "remain public institutions, receiving significant public funding".

Mr Denham said the Government's concessions were an admission that higher fees will put poorer students off university. In a letter to Mr Cable last night, he stated: "We welcome this 11th-hour recognition of reality. But it makes the question about the impact on social mobility more, not less pressing.

"Not many people will understand why students from families which do not work might have £18,000 cut from their fees, while families which do work, but on low and moderate incomes, will see their children face the full costs of the highest fees of any public university system in the industrialised world."

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, who will urge Liberal Democrat MPs to vote with the Opposition, will meet NUS leaders today.

Mr Clegg told The Independent on Sunday: "I believe in this policy. I really think we will look back in 10 or 15 years' time and think, actually that was quite a brave and bold and socially progressive thing to do."