Clegg tries to limit student fee rebellion
LONDON (Reuters) - Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wrote to his Liberal Democrat legislators on Wednesday in a bid to head off a threatened rebellion over plans to double university charges for students.
The plans in a government-ordered review have caused tensions in Clegg's party and could lead to a parliamentary defeat if enough Liberal Democrat legislators rebel.
The divisions were not expected to bring down the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, but add to uncertainty over whether it can hold together for a full five-year term.
The government on Tuesday backed the proposals to remove a cap of 3,290 pounds a year that universities are allowed to charge students for their tuition, and take Britain closer to a U.S.-style fees model.
The issue goes to the heart of a fierce political debate over the role of the state and the fairness of tax and benefits as the coalition tries to cut spending by 25 percent over the next four years.
The Liberal Democrats campaigned in the May election to abolish the fees, with legislators, including Clegg, signing pledges not to vote for a rise in student charges.
Some have already said they will stick to their promises and will vote against the proposals when they come to parliament.
Clegg, in an attempt to limit the size of the rebellion, told his members of parliament that the dire state of government finances meant there was no "pain-free" alternative to raising tuition fees.
"I am painfully aware of the pledge we all made to voters on tuition fees ahead of the general election. Departing from that pledge will be one of the most difficult decisions of my political career," he said.
"I understand there will be some colleagues who feel that they cannot depart from their pledge but I urge them to only come to that final conclusion after a thorough examination of all the facts available," he added.
Business Secretary Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat, has broadly welcomed the review by former BP Chief Executive John Browne.
The government has invited suggestions before making recommendations to parliament, with a view to implementing the new system in 2012. Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Simon Hughes, who is not a minister, said the party would press for changes to soften the plans.
"The job now is to take the starting point of the Browne report and what Vince Cable said yesterday -- to seek to improve the proposals to make them even more consistent with the policy we fought the election on," Hughes told BBC Radio.
(Additional reporting by Matt Falloon and Keith Weir; Editing by Matthew Jones)
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