Tuition fees: Clegg faces the music

By Ian Dunt

Nick Clegg battled tuition fees opponents on two fronts today, as he faced a hostile reception in the Commons and the shouts of protestors outside parliament.

As tens of thousands of student activists marched past Westminster, Mr Clegg was arriving to conduct PMQs, due to David Cameron’s trip to China.

Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman, standing in for Ed Miliband, instantly took the deputy prime minster to task for going back on his election pledge to oppose a rise in tuition fees.

“In April this year, the deputy prime minister said that it was his aim to end university tuition fees. Can he update the House on how his plan is progressing?” she began.

“This is an extraordinarily difficult issue,” Mr Clegg responded.

“I have been open about the fact that we have not been able to deliver the policy that we held in opposition because of the financial situation and because of the compromises of the coalition government.”

Meanwhile, sources at the protest were reporting several break-away groups of activists launching sit-down demonstrations just outside parliament.

Emily Chester, a student at Durham University, told politics.co.uk: “The Liberal Democrats have completely reneged on their pledge. It’s the complete opposite of what anyone who voted Liberal Democrat would have expected.”

The deputy prime minister is still trying to stave off a potential rebellion in Liberal Democrat ranks, as he bids to persuade MPs to go back on their pledge to oppose any rise in tuition fees.

Government plans would see the cap raised to £9,000 a year, a step back from the Browne report’s suggestion that the cap be lifted altogether.

The move is seen as a major betrayal by students. Business secretary Vince Cable and Mr Clegg have come in for particular abuse as the most well-recognised faces in the party.

Mr Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam seat relies heavily on student support and he is in a uniquely vulnerable position as he helps push through the reforms.

“We are taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to tell politicians that enough is enough,” Aaron Porter, NUS president, said.

“We will not tolerate the previous generation passing on its debts to the next, nor will we pick up the bill to access a college and university education that was funded for them.”

Mr Clegg has a chequered history at PMQp. He caused ripples of mockery during his first appearance when he branded the Iraq war illegal and announced the closure of Yarl’s Wood detention centre – both statements that Downing Street had to quickly row back from afterwards.

But his second appearance earned him plaudits for an assured and confident performance.