The leader of the Liberal Democrats won the backing of his ministerial team on Tuesday for coalition government plans to increase fees paid by university students as he struggled to contain a revolt.
The issue has divided the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the Conservative-led coalition, and commentators say it risks long-term damage to the alliance which took office seven months ago.
The government plans to allow universities in England to charge students fees of up to 9,000 pounds per year — almost treble the current limit, as it cuts state funding for higher education as part of an austerity programme.
The divisions over tuition fees are the sharpest the coalition has yet faced as it slashes public spending to curb a record peacetime budget deficit.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said he won the agreement of those in his party who hold ministerial positions on Tuesday to support the increase in a vote in parliament.
“Liberal Democrat ministers in government are as one on this, and as a team every single person will vote for this measure on Thursday,” Clegg, the deputy prime minister, told reporters after a party meeting.
About 18 Lib Dem members of parliament hold ministerial positions. Some rank-and-file Lib Dems may still abstain or vote against the increase.
WALK THROUGH FIRE
Clegg had earlier told his party’s lawmakers that he would support the increase and pleaded for unity.
“Given that we have to walk through the fire, it would be better to walk through the fire together,” he said.
Parliament is expected to approve the increase despite likely opposition from upwards of 12 of the 57 Lib Dem lawmakers in the 650-seat lower house. More worrying for the coalition is the scars that the issue will leave.
Transport minister Norman Baker, a Lib Dem, had earlier indicated he might vote against the bill, a stance that could have forced him to resign his government post.
Clegg said the planned fee increase was the “fairest possible measure to ensure that we have world-class universities in the future and that youngsters from whatever background can continue to go to university.”
The Lib Dems campaigned against higher fees before the May election and the leadership’s change of tack has brought accusations of betrayal from the party’s many young supporters.
Hundreds of young people have been arrested in three protests in recent weeks and more demonstrations are expected before Thursday’s vote in parliament. Trades unions have also said they will support the protests.
London police warned protesters that violent youths had hijacked recent protests.
“We will work with all protesters who want to peacefully protest and we acknowledge and respect their right to do so, but I would warn them to be aware of this violent element, which could harm them and their cause,” said Commander Bob Broadhurst.
The left-leaning Lib Dems have slid in the polls since joining the coalition with the centre-right Conservatives after an indecisive election in May.