Nick Clegg's attempts to hold his party together suffered another setback yesterday when three Liberal Democrats threatened to resign their government posts over plans to allow universities to charge £9,000 a year in tuition fees.
Norman Baker, the Transport Minister, and two parliamentary private secretaries – Jenny Willott and Mike Crockart – may quit so that they oppose the fees rise in a crucial Commons vote on Thursday. They are among the Lib Dems who are agonising over how to vote because all its 57 MPs signed a pledge to oppose an increase in fees at this year's general election.
The prospect of resignations cast a shadow over the Deputy Prime Minister's drive to contain the revolt. He is holding one-to-one meetings with potential rebels, urging opponents to abstain rather than vote against on Thursday. Tonight he will address a meeting of his MPs in a final attempt to limit the fall-out from Thursday's vote.
Mr Clegg hopes to avoid any resignations. He will adopt a softly, softly approach at tonight's talks, praising his party for having a tolerant, grown-up debate about higher education funding.
The whipping arrangements for the Commons vote will not be decided until MPs reveal their intentions tonight. A three-way split looks inevitable with some in favour of higher fees, some against and others abstaining. Parliamentary private secretaries, who would normally have to resign their posts if they opposed the Government, might be allowed to abstain.
Mr Clegg intends to vote for the Government's plans. So does Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, who is responsible for higher education and Cabinet ministers Danny Alexander and Michael Moore. Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, made clear yesterday he will return early from the climate change talks in Mexico to support the Government if the arithmetic suggests his vote is needed.
Although ministers are confident the Commons will pass the fees hike, a small number of Tory MPs may not support it – adding more uncertainty. Last night the National Union of Students said David Davis, the former shadow Home Secretary, had told it: "I am going to vote against this proposal."
Two former party leaders, Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, are among between 12 and 20 Lib Dems who may oppose the Government. The party's high command quashed an attempt by Greg Mulholland, one of the rebels, to delay the vote. Clegg allies said it would prolong the party's pain. Thursday's debate will be limited to three hours.
The Liberal Democrats' drama turned to farce when a man claiming to be Mike Crockart, parliamentary private secretary to Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, told the BBC that he was on the verge of resigning. Questions were raised about the man's identity when colleagues realised the voice on air was not that of the Edinburgh West MP. The man is believed to have a mobile phone number that previously belonged to Mr Crockart.
The respite for Mr Clegg was short-lived. The real Mr Crockart made clear he may resign his post because he does not support the virtual trebling of fees. He said: "I won't be voting for it." It was "a possibility" that he would vote against.
Liz Rawlings, president of Edinburgh University Students' Association, said: "We have been speaking to Mike and at our last meeting the message was, 'I will vote against the Bill, categorically.' "
Mr Baker said: "There are three options and to be honest, I haven't decided. It's an option if you resign."
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