Clegg concedes party is split as Tories defect too

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 08 December 2010 01:00

The Liberal Democrat rebellion over university tuition fees faded last night when all the party's ministers pledged to support plans to allow universities to charge students up to £9,000 a year.

At a heated two-and-a-half hour meeting ahead of the critical Commons vote on fees tomorrow, Nick Clegg appealed to his MPs to "walk through the fire" together. His plea met with some success as the 17 Liberal Democrat MPs who serve as ministers promised to vote for the hike in fees, allaying fears that some of them might resign.

Parliamentary private secretaries to Lib Dem ministers will be allowed to abstain without being sacked.

It emerged that half a dozen Conservative MPs may refuse to support the hike in fees. David Davis, the former shadow Home Secretary, will oppose the move, as will the former frontbencher Julian Lewis. Others who may abstain or vote against include Lee Scott, a parliamentary private secretary, Bob Blackman and Andrew Percy.

Despite the unexpected Tory rebellion, the betting at Westminster is that the Government will win the crunch vote. Mr Clegg's MPs are still likely to split three ways – some supporting the Government, some voting against and others abstaining. Several backbenchers with doubts rallied behind him last night. And unless any ministers change their mind, Mr Clegg will avoid any resignations over the issue.

Allies of Mr Clegg said he had laid down the law, and called it a sign of the party's maturity that its ministers would support the proposals.

The Deputy Prime Minister said after last night's meeting: "I've listened to the debate, I've listened to the protesters, I've listened to my party and, having done that, I can announce that all Liberal Democrat ministers – every single one – will vote for this measure when it comes to the vote on Thursday."

He added: "In these difficult circumstances where the country doesn't have very much money, this is the best and fairest possible way to ensure we have world-class universities for generations to come and that youngsters for generations to come can not only dream of going to university but can go to university irrespective of the circumstances of their birth."

In a 20-minute speech to his MPs, the Deputy Prime Minister admitted that a compromise plan for all of them to abstain had failed to unite the party because some were determined to vote against the fees rise.

He acknowledged a "strong difference of opinion" on fees, which the Liberal Democrats promised to phase out at the May election. In an attempt to prevent the fight leaving scars, he said he was "extremely proud" of the way his party had handled a difficult problem without personal animosity.

David Willetts, the Universities Minister, issued draft guidance for institutions which want to charge more than £6,000 a year "to do everything they can to make sure they are attracting our brightest students".

But Labour challenged the Government's claim that its proposals would cost lower income graduates less than the current system. In a letter to all MPs, John Denham, the shadow Business Secretary, called for the vote on fees to be postponed until after ministers published their plans in full in a White Paper next year. Issuing figures from Commons Library researchers, Mr Denham said: "It is increasingly clear that the Government's claims for fairness and for protecting low-income students do not stand up to scrutiny."

What lies ahead for Clegg

Scenario one

Lib Dem revolt held in check as 12 Lib Dem MPs join Labour in voting against the fees rise; 13 abstain but 32 toe the government line. David Davis votes against Government; four more Tories abstain.

332 Yes to fees rise

292 No to fees rise

40 Government majority .

Scenario two

Lib Dem revolt grows as party’s MPs split three ways – 19 against, 19 abstain and 19 for the fees rise.

319 Yes to fees rise

299 No to fees rise

20 Government majority.

Scenario three

Lib Dem rebellion reaches unexpected heights as ministers resign their posts, encouraging colleagues to oppose the Government rather than abstain. Thirty Lib Dems vote against the Government, 17 abstain and only 10 support it.

310 Yes to fees rise

310 No to fees rise

Speaker uses his casting vote to call for further discussion of the issue before another vote is held.

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