Former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell has indicated he may vote against the government on the important issue of university tuition fees.
An ongoing and politically difficult debate about the future of university funding has for some time threatened to prove divisive. The previous government did not help by deliberately avoiding confronting this uncomfortable issue head-on. What we now have is a time bomb on a rather short fuse that needs to be handled with extreme care; if not managed properly this spectre could not only derail the coalition but undermine party unity.
Universities have for some time been arguing to increase student fees. Some would like to see the current rate of £3,225 per year doubled. As the Liberal Democrats have long argued, increasing tuition fees would effectively restrict access to education and would, indirectly, have detrimental social consequences.
There has benever been any real agreement between the Conservatives and our own party on this. The Tories have never seemed capable of grasping the importance of widening - and maintaining - access to higher education. While the coalition agreement outlined many areas of common ground and purpose between the partners, on the issues of nuclear power, tax breaks for married couples and tuition fees no realistic agreement was likely to be easily reached. While the coalition partners are bound by "collective responsibility", Lib Dem MPs can abstain on these key issues - but this isn't far enough for Sir Menzies.
He said that he would find it impossible to vote for any increase in tuition fees, adding "I have never voted against my party in the past but this is an issue of some importance and I signed a pledge, and I would find it very difficult not to reflect that pledge in my vote...[it would be] very difficult, I think, on an issue of this kind simply to abstain."
Sir Menzies is a very unlikely rebel. His views on tuition fees are, I imagine, at one with those of most grassroots members and activists. Certainly, as we Scottish Lib Dems know too well, tuition fees are historically an issue on which we have provided a clear, distinctive alternative to the other main parties, and on which we have provided signifcant leadership while in government in Scotland. His objections go beyond the ideological - for him, this remains an issue of conscience. He has not only campaigned for abolition, but as Chancellor of St Andrew's University has signed up to a pledge to oppose any rise in fees.
I respect Sir Menzies' views. Even for someone who has promoted the politics of compromise and co-operation, the abandonment of such a distinctive liberal policy will naturally hurt. No doubt, this will be exacerbated by the knowledge of what the Lib Dems were able to achieve in Scotland with the effective abolition of tuition fees.
An "independent" committee headed by Lord Browne, the former BP boss, is currently reviewing university funding arrangements. Whatever the committee's findings, there should be a free vote on the issue in the Commons. Sir Menzies is right - MPs who have campaigned on distinctive positions can not easily abandon them by merely abstaining.
Nick Clegg announced at last year's conference that total abolition of fees was unaffordable in the immediate future and could only be achieved over the medium to long term. While many of us objected to this, it was not the abandonment of principle some claimed but a realistic aspiration given the economic circumstances.
Liberal Democrats will tolerate realism. We will accept that not all of our aspirations can be achieved immediately. We understand that tuition fees can not be significantly reduced until the pressing economic challenges are met. What we can not tolerate is for our long-term goals to be taken away while our MPs are forced to stand idly by or abstain in crucial votes.
Any proposed increases to tuition fees must be opposed by our party. We would be being dishonest to ourselves and our political legacy to do anything other. There are social and political consequences for not challenging such increases and the rationale behind them, none of which are particuarly attractive. While I respect the need for "collective responsibility" in government, on this key issue MPs must be allowed to follow their consciences - and the wishes of grassroots activists.