Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg admitted today that the need for "savage" public spending cuts might force him to ditch his party's promise to abolish tuition fees.
On the opening day of the Lib Dems' annual conference in Bournemouth, Mr Clegg said he had to be "realistic" about whether the flagship policy was affordable given the country's mountain of debt.
The pledge to scrap tuition fees for university students has been one of the Lib Dems' most popular policies and Mr Clegg insisted he still wanted to do it if he could.
Any move to keep the policy out of the party's forthcoming general election manifesto is likely to anger Lib Dem activists and hit its support among students.
"I believe tuition fees are wrong, I believe they need to be abolished, I want to do it as soon as possible," he said.
"But we need to treat people like grown ups, and we need to be realistic.
"Ending tuition fees would cost billions of pounds every year. We need to be certain we can afford it before we make any promises."
"But I can make this pledge - at the next election we will have the best, most progressive package for students of any mainstream party."
Mr Clegg also warned of "savage and bold" cuts in spending under a Lib Dem administration - but suggested they would be in areas that allowed vital public services to be protected.
"Yes I have said there will need to be cuts, cuts that are savage and bold," he said.
"But we will make those cuts so that we can be equally fierce - equally savage - about protecting the services that matter most, just as we put the nation's finances back in order.
"So if ending tax credits for high earners is the price we pay for cutting class sizes and investing in disadvantaged pupils, so be it.
"If we need to tell the highest paid public sector staff they won't get an increase in their pensions, so that we can afford to keep teachers, nurses, policemen and women in their jobs, so be it."
Mr Clegg went on to attack David Cameron as the "con man of British politics", accusing the Tory leader of saying anything to win the next general election.
He said it was up to the Lib Dems to hold the Conservatives to account because Labour's "time is up".
He claimed that the Lib Dems had already replaced Labour as the country's leading "progressive" party and scoffed at Tory pretensions to the same label.
The five-day Bournemouth gathering will be the Lib Dems' last annual conference before the next general election, which must be held within the next nine months.
Mr Clegg told activists that the Lib Dems were "the only party offering change for real - change for good".
"The Tories simply believe it's their turn, that they don't have to work for it, they don't have to prove themselves," Mr Clegg said.
"If you want things to be different, really different, you have to choose different. That's our message."
Mocking recent attempts by the Tories to portray themselves as "progressive", Mr Clegg went on: "They'll promise whatever they think it takes to get elected.
"David Cameron is the con man of British politics. He's put the con back into the Conservatives, just telling people what they want to hear."Reuse content