The Liberal Democrats’ internal divisions over tuition fees embroiled the party leadership on tuesday as Vince Cable said he might abstain from voting on a policy drafted by his own department, in an effort to maintain party discipline.
The business secretary, who in recent weeks has staunchly defended plans to raise annual fees to up to £9,000, said he would put his party before his policy as the Lib Dem leadership sought consensus among uneasy backbenchers.
“We are a disciplined party, we work together,” Mr Cable told the BBC. “If we all abstain then that’s the position I’m happy to go along with.
“But as I say my own personal instinct – because I am the minister responsible for the policy and because I think the policy is right – would be to support it.”
Nick Clegg, party leader, ducked the issue of his own vote when questioned in parliament, as Labour taunted the deputy prime minister over his about-turn on tuition fees.
“People will judge him on this,” said Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader. “If he abstains, it is a cop- out. If he votes for it, it is a sell-out.”
The party leadership is pushing for Lib Dems collectively to abstain from the vote – a right enshrined in the coalition agreement – in an effort to prevent division. But the internal turmoil is proving damaging to a party faced by the full force of student anger over the plan nearly to treble tuition fees.
The Lib Dem parliamentary party has yet to reach agreement. Some senior Lib Dems are convinced that mass abstention remains unlikely and that Mr Clegg’s offer to consider the option was intended to show he was listening to all sections of the party.
Simon Hughes, deputy leader, has been particularly vocal in pressing for party unity. “If we believe that these reforms are fair we should be making a positive case to the country, and that means voting for it,” said one minister.
An option considered by Mr Clegg was to encourage all ministers to vote in favour of the reforms while allowing backbenchers more leeway. However, he was warned by whips that this could leave a dangerously tight vote, particularly if there were a loss of confidence among a handful of Tory MPs.
Dozens of Lib Dem MPs have still to decide on how to vote, and about 10 are expected to oppose the measure regardless of Mr Clegg’s position.
Some senior Lib Dems are concerned about “contagion” in the ranks as the refuseniks make public statements highlighting the importance of sticking to pre-election pledges.
“It is fine to say Nick should show some leadership and back the reforms,” said one MP. “But it won’t look much like leadership if 30 MPs vote against him.”
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