Clegg under fire over U-turn on scrapping university tuition fees

Leader will tell conference that some policies have to be put on hold due to the recession

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk