Nick Clegg was last night still battling to secure the support of a majority of the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs in today's critical Commons vote on plans to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees.
Although the trebling of fees looks certain to be approved, the Lib Dem leader will work up to the last minute to limit the rebellion in his divided party.
His latest estimates suggest that only 27 of his MPs, including 17 Government ministers, will back the controversial hike in fees, a result which would be an embarrassment for Mr Clegg. The number of likely abstentions dropped, as support for and against the fees rise hardened.
Last night, Labour said it was backing a cross-party amendment to the tuition fees motion which calls for the decision to be delayed until after the Government has consulted more widely and published its higher education White Paper.
Shadow business secretary John Denham said: “It is clear that the coalition proposals for the highest public university fees in the world have not gained |public support.
“As the proposals are rushed through without the consequences being thought out, we are calling on MPs from across the political spectrum to support the amendment. If the amendment falls we hope MPs from all parties will join us in blocking the legislation.”
As up to 10 Tory MPs threatened to refuse to support the fees rise, the last-minute push by the Prime Minister and his deputy received a boost when the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies said the Government's plans would be more progressive than the current system or that proposed by Lord Browne, who carried out an inquiry into higher education funding.
There were heated clashes during Prime Minister's Questions as Labour leader Ed Miliband |accused Mr Cameron of being “out of touch with ordinary people” — highlighting his privileged education at Eton and Oxford.
But Mr Cameron hit back at Labour's “rank hypocrisy” on |university funding, stressing that the Government's proposals meant the poorest pay the least.
According to the IFS, the highest-earning graduates would pay more on average than the present scheme and that proposed by Lord Browne, while lower-earning graduates would pay back less.
Vince Cable, the Liberal |Democrat Business Secretary, |announced new concessions. About 25,000 more part-time students will not have to pay upfront fees and the £21,000 threshold at which graduates will start make repayments will be increased in line with earnings every year, rather than once every five years as originally planned.
Mr Cable claimed the changes would mean a “significantly |fairer and more progressive new system”, although Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, said the concessions were “an admission that what they are trying to do is something that politicians and the public are not comfortable with”.
Government whips believe the proposals will be approved with a majority of between 20 and 40.