Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, was yesterday handed the job of selling the Government's unpopular higher education reforms to prospective students.
Downing Street said Mr Hughes – who abstained in the Commons vote on raising tuition fees – agreed to take up the unpaid role as an "access advocate" to persuade parents and children from poor backgrounds they will be able to afford a university education when the new fees come into effect.
However, just as important will be Mr Hughes's role in convincing recalcitrant Liberal Democrat supporters that the party has not sold out to the Tories over the policy and that the new fees structure is genuinely fairer than the previous system. Mr Hughes is a popular figure in the party and his acceptance of the new role is a sign of how seriously the leadership takes the fall-out from the tuition fees vote.
"I think there is recognition that we have not got our message across on this," said one Liberal Democrat source. "It has been drowned out by brick-throwing students and scare-mongering stories about upfront fees. This is something we need to address before students are put off from applying to university on false grounds."
The damage done by the tuition fees vote was also underlined by Nick Clegg's recorded New Year message for party members, which was released yesterday. In it, he admitted the difficulties of being in Government but insisted progress had been made towards the Liberal Democrat agenda. "I don't want to pretend it has all been easy," he said. "These are testing times."
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