Delegates lash out at leader over policy shifts

Liberal Democrat hierarchy is accused of failing to consult members about decisions
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Indy Politics

Anger over the threat to the Liberal Democrats' pledge to scrap university tuition fees boiled over at the party's conference yesterday when senior MPs and activists demanded that the policy be protected.

Several senior figures also used a debate on the party's future manifesto to criticise Nick Clegg for delivering an overly gloomy message that risked alienating their traditional voters.

Steve Webb, the party's pensions spokesman, led the protests and said that his leader had "overdone the despair" in warning that major pledges, such as an end to tuition fees, may have to be delayed.

Mr Webb, who delivered his broadside as Mr Clegg entered the conference hall, said voters would not come out to support the party if its message was "too much hair-shirt".

He warned that the party risked coming up with a programme that "alienated every group in society" by obsessing over cuts that may never be adopted as policy.

Evan Harris, the party's science spokesman and a staunch defender of the tuition fees policy, delivered his hardest message yet to his leader.

"I think Nick is a really great guy and a good leader," he said. "But good Liberal Democrat leaders only become great leaders when they recognise it's the party that makes the policy. I expect Nick will soon be recognised as a great leader."

Martin Horwood, the MP for Cheltenham, said the argument for lowering the cost of going to university marked a clear difference between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories.

"In a recession, when there is growing evidence of the stress and mental health risks of personal debt, I think we should make our commitment stronger, clearer and so even more impossible for Mr Cameron to follow," Mr Horwood said.

There was growing discontent among delegates attending the Bournemouth conference over Mr Clegg and the Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, deciding policy "from on high" without consulting the party. Susan Gaszczak, part of the party's Federal Policy Committee (FPC), said she would fight any attempts to backtrack on tuition fees, "which many of us were elected to FPC to protect".

Many in the party remain opposed to any shift on the policy and have been worried by Mr Clegg's focus on making "savage" cuts during the conference. Charles Kennedy, the former leader, used his appearance at a fringe event to warn Mr Clegg not to remove the pledge. He said that the policy had "served us well" and helped win crucial votes from Labour.

However, the leadership was not backing down on its tough stance yesterday. The party's manifesto chief, Danny Alexander, repeated the need to "savagely [cut] back the bureaucracy and the quangos of Gordon Brown's centralised state".

He told delegates that some "cherished" policies would have to be shelved in light of the economic crisis. The party's programme had to be "economically credible, politically bold and socially radical".

"I would love to be able to tell you that the commitments that I care about, the commitments that all of you care about will all, without exception, be Liberal Democrat manifesto commitments that can be delivered in the next Parliament," he said.

"A year ago, that is what I intended. But right now, it would simply not be honest to do that. I will not, and we must not, make any firm commitments to the British people for the next Parliament until we are certain that it can be paid for."

Other front-bench MPs rallied to the defence of the leadership. "The position is very clear," said Norman Baker, the transport spokesman. "Scrapping tuition fees is something we want to do, but the economic reality is that we will not be able to do everything we want to straight away."

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