Lib Dem activists target Nick Clegg over tuition fees
More than 100 Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidates have called on leader Nick Clegg to oppose government plans to raise tuition fees in England.
The 104 activists, who did not win seats in the last election, want all 57 Lib Dem MPs to vote against plans to allow fees of up to £9,000 a year.
They say the party's integrity is at risk and warn it could face many years "back in the political wilderness".
But Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams said such warnings were "completely absurd".
The coalition deal allows Lib Dem MPs to abstain in a vote on tuition fees, expected to take place before the end of the year, although Lib Dem ministers in the coalition government could come under pressure to back the proposals.
The election candidates' petition, hosted on Lib Dem candidate Derek Deedman's website, said: "During the general election campaign many of our MPs (and now government ministers) signed a pledge with the National Union of Students that they would vote against any tuition fee rises during the course of the next Parliament.
"The wording of this pledge clearly indicated that this would be unconditional; regardless of whether the party was in government or in opposition.
"The party has been very clear for many years about its view on tuition fees and that we feel they should be abolished."
The former candidates say they are not rebelling but want the Lib Dems to stick to their pre-election pledge on the issue.
"There is one thing that sets the Liberal Democrats apart from other political parties; this is that when we say we will do something during election campaigns we then do it in government," they state.
The petition was devised by 19-year-old student Craig Bichard, a member of Arundel & South Downs Liberal Democrats, and supported by Mr Deedman, parliamentary candidate for the constituency, who lost out to Conservative policing minister Nick Herbert.
'Strength of feeling'
A former MP who signed the petition said Lib Dem members of Parliament should not be forced to vote for policies which were "clearly not their own".
"I think it is important that the parliamentary party knows the strength of feeling in the party, as a whole, that we should keep to what is the policy of the party as decided in various conferences - namely that we should abolish tuition fees," David Rendel told BBC Radio 4's The World At One.
Conservative higher education minister David Willetts has said he is "confident" his Lib Dem cabinet colleague, Business Secretary Vince Cable, would back the measure in a Commons vote.
Mr Cable is expected to speak on Monday evening to the petition co-ordinators to explain why he believes the proposals will make the higher education system in England more fair.
Mr Clegg has said last he "massively regrets" that he cannot deliver on his election promise but has argued the proposals are fairer than the current system as the level at which graduates will start to repay money will rise to £21,000 and additional support for the poorest students.
The BBC's deputy political editor James Landale said the Lib Dem leader had spent recent days talking to his MPs individually to try to persuade them to abstain rather than vote against the rise in fees.
Stephen Williams, a former Lib Dem higher education spokesman, said that while the Lib Dems were not able to deliver on some of their manifesto commitments, the tuition fees package included policies - such as a fairer deal for part-time students - that they had campaigned for.
"To say that we are not implementing some of our policies is simply wrong," he told the World at One.
As there was no "rule book" for coalition politics, he said Lib Dems should be given leeway in parliamentary votes on issues where they had distinctive policies.
"It would be a constitutional novelty but I do not see why Lib Dem ministers should not be able to abstain on this particular issue," he told
The proposals have angered students and led to mass demonstrations around the country, with another day of action due on Tuesday.
Last Wednesday, there were 35 arrests and seven injuries to police officers as an initially peaceful anti-fees rise protest in Whitehall flared into violence.