Business secretary insists rise in university fees is the right policy, but Lib Dems say Cable could still abstain in vote
Vince Cable has declared that he faced a "duty" to vote in favour of the rise in university tuition fees next week, guaranteeing a split in Liberal Democrat ranks when grandees oppose the policy. In a move which surprised senior party figures, who had thought Cable was prepared to abstain in the interests of party unity, the business secretary insisted that the rise in fees was the right policy. "Obviously I have a duty as a minister to vote for my own policy – and that is what will happen," Cable told his local newspaper, the Richmond and Twickenham Times.
Cable, who has the right under the coalition agreement as a Lib Dem MP to abstain in next week's vote, has indicated to fellow ministers that he is minded to vote in favour of the rise on the grounds that he is the responsible minister. He also believes he has introduced fairness to the system by raising the salary level at which the fees are paid back from £15,000 to £21,000.
However, there were signs that Cable and Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury who was also involved in drawing up the policy, were prepared to abstain if the likes of Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy joined them. Cable told his paper that he had considered abstaining as an "olive branch" to colleagues who are "finding this difficult". But Cable said: "There is a dilemma. I'm very clear I regard the policy as right and as a member of the cabinet I am collectively responsible for the policy. There is no doubt that is what I should do."
There was further confusion when the Lib Dems said Cable could still abstain. A party source said: "A final decision has not been made. It is still possible Vince could abstain." If the business secretary does back the rise, there is likely to be a three-way split in the Lib Dem vote. Cable, Alexander and other senior ministers will vote in favour, other MPs will abstain and the likes of Kennedy will oppose the rise.
Gareth Thomas, the shadow higher education minister, said: "John Cleese could not have scripted this farce better than Vince Cable. The truth is these proposals weren't necessary, they're unfair and they don't offer a long-term sustainable system of support for students or for universities. Other Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs need to join Labour on Thursday to force the government to think again."
Cable's announcement came as the Lib Dems abandoned a conference in London amid fears that a planned protest against tuition fees could threaten the safety of parents and children. The Lib Dems had hoped to hold a London regional conference at Haverstock School in Camden where the Milibands were educated. But Haverstock's head, John Dowd, raised safety concerns and it was moved to the Royal Horticultural Halls, central London. When safety fears were raised about that venue, the conference was postponed until February.
Flick Rea, a Lib Dem councillor in Camden who had organised the conference, said: "I suppose it is part of the problem of being in government. We have to accept that nobody loves us any more." The organisers of the demonstration, who had expected 1,000 protesters, accused the Lib Dems of running scared. Fiona Edwards, spokeswoman for the Free Education Campaign, said: "This reflects the fact that they are feeling the pressure from these student protests. They are running scared but we will keep chasing them down. It is a shame that they won't engage with students on this issue."