Liberal Democrat ministers, MPs and activists rallied round Nick Clegg yesterday after his surprise mea culpa for his tuition fees U-turn – but his words failed to defuse anger among student leaders, who demanded a change of policy instead of a display of contrition.
The episode also took a bizarre turn when a spoof video setting his solemn apology to music went viral on the internet, potentially exposing the Deputy Prime Minister to fresh ridicule over his decision in Government to tear up an election commitment to oppose rises in fees.
Mr Clegg decided on the dramatic move after attending public and party meetings over the summer at which the issue was constantly raised by critics, as well as internal polling which showed it was blighting the Liberal Democrats' electoral prospects.
The party released footage of his apology – to be screened next week – ahead of its annual conference in an effort to kill off the subject before delegates start arriving in Brighton tomorrow.
Senior party figures lined up to back Mr Clegg's initiative, although Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, was careful to point out he had been sceptical about the election pledge.
Crucially for Mr Clegg, the MP Greg Mulholland, one of the most fierce Liberal Democrat critics of the fees about-turn, welcomed his apology. He said: "This took courage and I hope people give him credit for saying that publicly."
The majority of activists posting on the Liberal Democrat Voice website also supported their leader. Its co-editor, Mark Pack, said: "Overwhelmingly, party members have welcomed him taking a big and bold step on an issue that is clearly still a big and damaging problem for the party."
However, as the first undergraduates subject to the new funding system started arriving at university, the National Union of Students was scathing in its verdict.
Its president, Liam Burns, said: "It's up to Nick Clegg now to reach out and apologise to those he betrayed by breaking his fees pledge and to make amends by changing his policies."
Lib Dem sources insisted there would be no alteration to Coalition policy on higher education funding, but did not rule out the Liberal Democrats standing on a platform of abolishing tuition fees at the next general election. Meanwhile Mr Clegg gave permission for the video mocking his apology to be released as a single on iTunes, with profits going to Sheffield Children's NHS Foundation Trust.
His aides insisted they were relaxed about it becoming an internet hit, arguing that it would help to get the subject of Mr Clegg's apology discussed.
One said it was impossible to ignore the damage being done to the party by the accusation that he had broken his word. "It comes up every single time Nick gives an interview – it wasn't withering on the vine as an issue," he said.
But another acknowledged: "It will take some time before we know whether the apology has worked. The main thing is to get it out there."
Clegg's apology: What the party thinks
Vince Cable, Business Secretary
"I was sceptical about the pledge but we agreed collectively to do it and I take my share of the responsibility … It was an unwise commitment to have made and we regret that and that was the basis of the apology … We have been badly punished for it. We have lost a lot of trust but we are acknowledging it."
David Laws, Schools minister
"He [Nick Clegg] took on the party and told them what they didn't want to hear, which was the pledge of abolishing tuition fees overnight was not affordable, that we'd have to do it over two parliaments. He now regrets, and I now regret and Vince Cable now regrets, that we didn't go further to point out how tough this would be."
Jo Swinson, East Dunbartonshire MP
"The problem with this particular pledge for the Liberal Democrats, and what made it different, was it committed us to vote in a particular way regardless of what happened with the election result. That's what we should not have done."
Greg Mulholland, Leeds North West MP
"I welcome Nick's apology for what was a mistake. This took courage and I hope people give him credit for saying that publicly. Let's be clear that what we now have is basically a capped graduate tax, which is fairer and more progressive than Labour's upfront fees."
Relax visa laws to boost UK tech economy, report says
The Government must relax Britain's draconian visa rules to make it easier for digital start-ups to hire international graduates, a think-tank with close links to the Conservative leadership says today.
In a report on how to take advantage of the rapid growth in the international high-tech economy, Policy Exchange recommends easing the visa requirements for skilled migrants, to enable start-up businesses to take on highly skilled staff for a two-year probationary period.
It the longer term it says Britain's education system needs to radically improve the quality and quantity of home-grown science, technology, engineering and maths graduates.
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