Nick Clegg faces a grassroots backlash against moves to abandon the Liberal Democrats’ flagship pledge to scrap university tuition fees.
He will warn his party, whose conference begins today, that some of its long-standing policy promises will have to be downgraded to “aspirations” because of the ferocity of the recession. But anger is growing among Lib Dem MPs and activists that the party’s commitment to abolishing tuition fees could fall victim to the need to produce an austerity manifesto at the next election.
The party leadership is braced for protests at the Bournemouth conference over the possible threat – first disclosed by the Independent two months ago - to tuition fee policy. Lib Dem commitments to provide free personal care for the elderly and bring in a higher basic state pension could also be at risk.
Mr Clegg will not spell out this week which policies could be axed, but will tell activists that the party needs to reduce its traditional shopping-list of spending demands to present a credible programme for government to the voters.
But he will be warned by critics that the tuition policy should remain sacrosanct – not least because the party polled strongly among students at the last election, when it picked up more than 40 per cent of their support, and holds a series of seats in university towns and cities.
Evan Harris, the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, said the party had recently endorsed the policy and insisted it was “extremely unlikely” that its federal policy committee, which will oversee the election manifesto, would change his mind.
He said: “It’s a policy we’re known to have and there are not many policies – thanks to the media coverage we get – that are known. We have been campaigning on it for years.”
Dr Harris added that the party should “avoid getting dragged into a downward auction of public services”.
John Leech, the MP for Manchester Withington, where there is a large student vote, said: “The abolition of tuition fees remains a policy of the Liberal Democrats. Unlike the other parties we actually base our policies on what members decide at conference.”
Liberal Democrat Youth, the party’s student organisation, has unanimously voted to defend the tuition fee commitment. Elaine Bagshawe, its chair, said: “It’s a really important issue and we will be fighting for it to remain policy.”
The Lib Dem leadership has sought to dampen activists’ anger by tabling a motion reassuring them that no commitments have been downgraded yet and the “process of prioritising” them will only take place in the run-up to the election.
Mr Clegg will acknowledge the strong feelings over tuition fees in his keynote speech on Wednesday. He is expected to hint that the pledge to scrap them could be refined, rather than completely ditched. One possibility is that the party could commit itself to phase in their abolition subject to the state of the nation’s finances.
The Lib Dem leader will use the party’s final conference before the election expected in the Spring to call for a drive to capture seats from Labour in major cities.
He will argue that Labour is in sharp decline, presenting the Lib Dems with the opportunity to become the leading champion of progressive values.
But he will steer clear of any suggestion of deals with Labour or Tories in the event of a hung parliament. Allies argue that any such speculation clouds the party’s message, undermining attempts to maximise its vote.
Vince Cable, the Lib Dem treasury spokesman, is preparing to set out party proposals to overhaul the tax system and to suggest areas of public spending.
*Last night, on the eve of the conference, the Conservatives announced that a former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, James Keeley, had defected to the party.