Tuition fees are likened to the poll tax by the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable in a leaflet circulating in Scotland, despite the leading role he is taking in raising them to up to £9,000 a year.
The publication tells Scottish Liberal Democrat voters that Mr Cable believes the fees are unfair, adding that the party wants them to be abolished across Britain. Mr Cable is responsible for increasing the top rate of tuition fees – a move that has plunged his party into turmoil.
Although the party stresses he was describing the current regime of fees, the leaflet will leave him open to conveying different messages in different parts of the country. The pressure on Nick Clegg intensified yesterday after 104 Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidates signed a petition urging the party to abandon its support for the measure. Students will today mount another day of protests in London against the planned rises.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat leaflet says Mr Cable has compared tuition fees to the poll tax, as they are seen as "an unfair weight around students' necks". It quotes the Business Secretary as saying: "It surely can't be right that a teacher or care worker or research scientist is expected to pay the same graduate contribution as a top commercial lawyer." The leaflet adds that the Liberal Democrats want to scrap tuition fees across the UK.
A spokeswoman for Mr Cable said he was speaking about the tuition fees system inherited from the previous government. He believed the injustices he had highlighted had been corrected by the Coalition Government's proposals.
But John Denham, the shadow Business Secretary, said: "Vince Cable is trying to hide the huge embarrassment for the Lib Dems, who campaigned during the election on scrapping student fees and then performed a breathtaking volte-face."
The 57 Liberal Democrat MPs are still agonising over what to do when the Commons votes on the rise in fees next month. The party faces the nightmare of its MPs splitting in three directions, with Mr Clegg, Mr Cable and other senior ministers supporting the measure, at least 13 voting against and the rest abstaining.
In their petition, the 104 activists warned Mr Clegg that the party faced "many more years back in the political wilderness" unless the fee rises were thrown out. They wrote: "During the general election campaign many of our MPs (and now government ministers) signed a pledge with the National Union of Students that they would vote against any tuition fee rises during the course of the next Parliament.
"The wording of this pledge clearly indicated that this would be unconditional, regardless of whether the party was in government or in opposition. The party has been very clear for many years about its view on tuition fees and that we feel they should be abolished."
Their stance reflects party fears that the backlash it is suffering from voters is still growing, with its support being roughly halved since the general election.
Some senior figures fear the Liberal Democrats will suffer a mauling on 5 May when elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English councils are held.
Their fear is that they will lose hundreds of elected representatives – and suffer defeat in the referendum to change the voting system, which is being held on the same day.