Lib Dem MPs plot tuition fees fightback

By Alex Stevenson

Liberal Democrat MPs are preparing a lengthy campaign to fight the coalition’s plans for higher education, as the fallout from yesterday’s Browne review continues.

The party’s MPs signed a pledge before the general election making their opposition to tuition fees clear.

But Nick Clegg’s coalition with the Conservatives means many Lib Dem MPs in constituencies with large student populations are now supporting a government which proposes raising the cap on tuition fees to £7,000.

Media reports suggested this afternoon that Mr Clegg had written to his MPs telling them that going back on the tuition fees pledge was the toughest decision he has ever had to make.

Business secretary Vince Cable told the Commons yesterday that “all pledges are going to have to be re-examined from first principles”. He endorsed the key points of Lord Browne’s review, including a suggestion some universities could even charge above the £7,000 limit.

Many Lib Dem backbenchers are not prepared to abandon their pre-election pledge so lightly and are now preparing a long fight with the government.

Stephen Williams, who was the Lib Dems’ higher education spokesperson before the general election, is emerging as a key figure in this campaign.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that at the end of [the debates to come] we will have a much more progressive collection regime than we have at the moment,” he told politics.co.uk.

“What I’m absolutely determined to achieve – and if we don’t achieve it I will vote against the government – is making sure people from poorer backgrounds in particular are not put off from accessing the top quality higher education institutions in our country.”

Stephen Williams on the Browne review – listen to politics.co.uk’s interview in full

A consultation on Lord Browne’s review is expected to be followed by a government white paper, before legislation faces scrutiny from parliament.

Some Lib Dem backbenchers hope to use this lengthy process to water down Lord Browne’s proposals. Others believe a graduate tax remains a feasible option.

“For whatever reason, it looks as though both Lord Browne and the government have decided not to go forward with a graduate tax,” Mr Williams added.

“I’m not really interested in fighting battles that have already been lost. I’m much more interested in making sure the regime we’ve got is made much better in the future.”

Another Lib Dem MP insisted that, if funding higher education from general taxation was not possible, a graduate tax should not be ruled out completely.

“We are making it better than it was. In that sense we’re delivering on this,” he said. “I think we could go further.”

Many backbenchers were uncharacteristically happy to have their dissenting voices quoted publicly.

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert said he was not prepared to shift his opposition to tuition fees, a position held since he had been an undergraduate.

“There is pressure to properly fund universities, but forcing students to take on huge amounts of debt is not the way,” he said.

Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland said each MP would have to decide whether or not to break the tuition fees pledge.

“There are many of us, certainly in the Liberal Democrats and I suspect probably across the House to some extent, who are very concerned… and will oppose any attempt to raise fees in the way that has been leaked from the Browne report.”

“I made that pledge, I was happy to do so and in my opinion it’s not something I can not [sic] go back on.”

Higher education is one of three areas which the coalition agreement specifically makes provision for a division of opinion between the Conservatives and Lib Dems.

Under the terms of the deal undertaken by negotiators in May Lib Dem MPs will have to abstain from a vote backing tuition fees.

That agreement appears increasingly flimsy this morning as several Lib Dem MPs are threatening to vote against the bill, for abstaining would guarantee its passage even if all Labour MPs opposed it.

“If the government comes back with any proposal that lifts the cap on tuition fees I for one will not vote for it. I believe that an abstention is not enough,” defeated deputy leadership candidate Tim Farron said.

“I am fully in support of the coalition and am enthusiastic about working together in the national interest – but on tuition fees I will be keeping a promise to the people who elected me.”

The party’s deputy leader Simon Hughes conceded on the Today programme that the pledge was haunting Lib Dem MPs.

“Obviously people are mindful of their pledges,” he said.

“And so each individual member of the parliamentary party and the parliamentary party as a whole have to both weigh up the circumstances in the light of the Browne report and in the light of Vince cable’s statement, and listen to the debate around the country before we make our decision.”

The Lib Dems’ pledge is not passing unnoticed from the opposition benches, where Labour MPs are repeatedly flagging it up.

Lib Dems criticise their hypocrisy, as the 2001 Labour manifesto included a promise not to introduce the top-up fees which followed just two years later.

But Labour attacks on the pledge are proving effective.

“Thousands of votes went to the Lib Dems because of their promise to abolish fees over the term of the parliament, and the unequivocal pledge signed personally by every Lib Dem MP, including Nick Clegg, to vote against increasing fees,” Labour’s Sheffield Central MP Paul Bloomfield commented.

“I urge Lib Dem MPs to honour their pledge or lose all credibility and trust.”