Page last updated at 19:10 GMT, Saturday, 19 September 2009 20:10 UK

Clegg 'to axe tuition fee pledge'

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News, Lib Dem conference

Lib Dems offer 'change for real'

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has said he may be forced to abandon the party's flagship policy of scrapping university tuition fees in England.

Mr Clegg told his party's annual conference he has to be "realistic" about whether it is affordable given the country's mountain of debt.

But scrapping one of the party's best-known policies could put Mr Clegg on a collision course with activists.

Influential figures on the left of the party want to keep it in the manifesto.

The party's Federal Policy Committee, which has the final say on the party's programme for the next election, voted earlier this year to keep the policy.

But Mr Clegg and Treasury Spokesman Vince Cable say they are determined to show they are serious about slashing spending to tackle Britain's record national debt.

'Realistic'

They will spend the week in Bournemouth trying to convince party members to sign up to a cost-cutting election manifesto - including a squeeze on public sector pay and pensions.

Ending tuition fees would cost billions of pounds every year - we need to be certain we can afford it before we make any promises
Nick Clegg

And Mr Clegg will insist that nothing is off-limits - including policies such as free university tuition which are popular with grassroots members.

"I believe tuition fees are wrong, I believe they need to be abolished, I want to do it as soon as possible," Mr Clegg told a rally of party activists in Bournemouth.

"But we need to treat people like grown-ups, and we need to be realistic.

"Ending tuition fees would cost billions of pounds every year. We need to be certain we can afford it before we make any promises.

"But I can make this pledge - at the next election we will have the best, most progressive package for students of any mainstream party."

'Serious cuts'

Mr Clegg warned of "serious and bold" cuts in spending under a Lib Dem administration - but said they will be in areas that allow vital public services to be protected.

"So if ending tax credits for high earners is the price we pay for cutting class sizes and investing in disadvantaged pupils, so be it," he told activists.

"If we need to tell the highest paid public sector staff they won't get an increase in their pensions, so that we can afford to keep teachers, nurses, policemen and women in their jobs, so be it."

Mr Clegg also attacked Tory leader David Cameron as the "con man of British politics", accusing him of saying anything to win the next general election.

He said it is up to the Lib Dems to hold the Conservatives to account because Labour's "time is up".

The five-day gathering will be the Lib Dems' last annual conference before the next general election, which must be held within the next nine months.

Danny Alexander, who as chairman of the party's manifesto group has the job of putting together the party's programme for the next election, said the leadership wanted to convince activists they were serious about cuts.

He told the BBC News Channel: "What we're saying to activists this week in the manifesto debate that we're having is that given the public finances that we face it's simply not going to be possible for us to deliver every single policy that we have.

"But tuition fees is very much in our minds as something that we'd like to do. It's not being ruled out. All the policies we have, have the same status.

"They're up for negotiation within our manifesto process."



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