Clegg set for Pyrrhic victory in fees vote

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Nick Clegg was last night still battling to secure the support of a majority of the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs in today's critical Commons vote on plans to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees. Although the trebling of fees looks certain to be approved, the Liberal Democrat leader will work up to the last minute to limit the rebellion in his divided party.

His latest estimates suggest that just 27 of his MPs, including 17 Government ministers, will back the motion – less than half in total, and an embarrassment for Mr Clegg. The deputy leader of his party, Simon Hughes, added to the embarrassment last night by saying he would not support the Government in today's vote and would either abstain or vote against it.

Government whips believe the Coalition will win with a majority of between 20 and 40 and Chris Huhne, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, was allowed to remain at the climate-change talks in Mexico, even though Labour refused to grant him a "pair". However Greg Barker, the Conservative climate change minister, has left the Cancun summit to support the Government.

As up to 10 Tory MPs threatened to refuse to support the fees rise, the last-minute push by the Prime Minister and his deputy was boosted when the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said the Government's plans would be more progressive than the current system or that proposed by Lord Browne of Madingley, who carried out an inquiry into higher-education funding.

According to the IFS, the highest-earning graduates would pay more on average than under both the present scheme and the one proposed by Lord Browne, while lower-earning graduates would pay less.

But the IFS said that the Coalition's more complex system of student support and interest rates, combined with the national scholarship fund, would provide a perverse financial incentive for universities charging more than £6,000 a year to turn away students from poorer backgrounds. Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, also announced new concessions. Some 25,000 more part-time students will not have to pay up-front fees and the £21,000 threshold for graduates to start repayments will be increased in line with earnings every year, rather than once every five years. Mr Cable claimed the changes would mean a "significantly fairer and more progressive new system". But Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, said the concessions were an admission that the policy "is something that politicians and the public are not comfortable with".