Nick Clegg has made an abject apology to the nation for his broken promise on university tuition fees in a final attempt to stop his U-turn haunting his leadership.
Almost two years after the Coalition agreed to treble fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year, the Liberal Democrat leader admitted he was wrong to fight the 2010 election on a pledge not to raise them.
In a party political broadcast to be screened on Monday, Mr Clegg says: "There is no easy way to say this: we made a pledge. We didn't stick to it – and for that I am sorry. When you've made a mistake you should apologise. But more importantly – most important of all – you've got to learn from your mistakes. And that's what we will do. I will never again make a pledge unless as a party we are absolutely clear about how we can keep it."
The Deputy Prime Minister's move is a huge gamble. His critics will see it as a sign of weakness amid speculation that his party may replace him with Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, before the next election.
Mr Clegg hopes his unprecedented "mea culpa" will finally cast off the millstone that has hung around his neck since the rise in fees was announced. He insists that the policy, which he now calls "a time-limited graduate tax", was right – but admits he was wrong to sign the National Union of Students' pledge not to raise fees because his party could only share power with the Conservatives or Labour, both of whom were committed to higher charges.
He decided to "fess up" to the country during his summer holiday in Spain – and refused to be talked out of it when some aides doubted his strategy. He scribbled most of the words during his break and the broadcast was filmed in the living room of his home in London.
The Liberal Democrat leader hopes privately that his apology will "clear the decks" so that his party gets a hearing for its work inside the Coalition.
He admits in the broadcast that it will not be enough for everyone, saying: "I owe you to be up front about it. And I don't believe it should cast a shadow over everything else the Liberal Democrats are achieving in Government."
Mr Clegg's dramatic move comes on the eve of the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton starting on Saturday, where his leadership will be in the spotlight as he tries to reassure his party that he is the right man to lead it into the 2015 election.
His personal ratings have sunk to an all-time low, according to an Ipsos Mori survey, showing that 66 per cent of people are dissatisfied and 23 per cent satisfied with his performance. Unusually, more Liberal Democrat supporters are unhappy than happy with him.
In another setback for Mr Clegg, a report out today says his flagship £1.25bn-a-year "pupil premium" scheme to help disadvantaged children has had little or no impact on the way they are taught in more than 50 per cent of schools. Instead, many schools are using the extra cash to fund existing provision threatened by cuts or allowing the cash to be swallowed up in their main budget, the first in-depth study by the education standards watchdog Ofsted shows. Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, said: "Instead of crying crocodile tears he should vote with Labour to bring these tuition fees down. If Nick Clegg does not back his words with action he is just weak and spineless."
The Deputy Prime Minister's allies admit his bold move may attract criticism in the short term but believe that over time it will win the party more of a hearing from voters who have deserted it since 2010.
They insist that it is much better to tackle the issue still haunting the party now rather than make an even more belated apology during the 2015 election campaign.
Mr Clegg's words may sit uncomfortably alongside a claim today by Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat Home Office minister, that the overwhelming majority of voters supported higher fees at the last general election. He tells The Spectator magazine: "People had a choice of voting for a party that didn't want tuition fees and only 8 per cent of the constituencies in the country returned an MP from that party, so the people spoke and the people spoke very loudly and they said, 'We want higher fees'."
'We made a pledge...' Clegg's apology
"We made a promise before the election that we would vote against any rise in fees under any circumstances. But that was a mistake. It was a pledge made with the best of intentions – but we shouldn't have made a promise we weren't absolutely sure we could deliver.
I shouldn't have committed to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money around. Not least when the most likely way we'd end up in Government was in coalition with Labour or the Conservatives, who were both committed to put fees up. I know that we fought to get the best policy we could in those circumstances.
But I also realise that isn't the point. There's no easy way to say this: we made a pledge, we didn't stick to it – and for that I am sorry. When you've made a mistake you should apologise. But more importantly – most important of all – you've got to learn from your mistakes. And that's what we will do. I will never again make a pledge unless as a party we are absolutely clear about how we can keep it."
Call for limit on London homes for foreigners
A clampdown on wealthy foreigners buying second homes in central London is to be proposed at the Lib Dem party conference next week.
The motion will call for councils to be allowed to prevent houses from being sold as second homes to overseas buyers domiciled abroad, requiring them to let them out instead. The move comes after Simon Hughes, the party's deputy leader, said foreign investment in housing was pricing Londoners out of the market.