Nick Clegg has appealed to the Liberal Democrats to move on from their divisions over tuition fees and re-unite to help the party deliver on its priorities in the coalition.
The Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader insisted there was no “rancour” among his MPs after more than a third of them rebelled against the increase in tuition fees.
As he sought to smooth over differences, he said the party could look forward to implementing a “liberal, fair” agenda as part of the Tory-led Government.
Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable also issued a message of unity and claimed the party would emerge “stronger” from the tuition fees vote.
It severely exposed the limits of Mr Clegg’s writ within his own party as 21 out of 57 Lib Dem MPs rejected his pleas and voted against the Government plans to increase fees. They included two parliamentary aides, who quit their jobs. Another eight did not vote.
But Mr Clegg made clear he wanted to keep the rebel MPs onside and played down the significance for the coalition of the three-way split in his party. “We, internally within the Liberal Democrats, knew we wouldn’t be able to get complete unanimity between the Liberal Democrats,” he said.
“Clearly we did not, it’s no surprise to anyone that this was going to be a difficult issue for us. But we’ve talked to each other and the party has discussed this in a calm and respectful manner which I think will now allow us to move forward without rancour and in a united way, not least in the coalition Government so that we can deliver the liberal, fair things we want for Britain as a whole.”
Mr Cable also insisted the Lib Dem rebels remained committed to the alliance with the Tories. And he dismissed the prospect of lasting divisions within the party and questions about whether Mr Clegg’s job as party leader was safe. “I’m absolutely confident that his leadership will continue and indeed we will continue as a party within the coalition agreement,” Mr Cable told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
But shadow home secretary Ed Balls warned that the Tories were using the Lib Dems as “human shields”. “The Lib Dems have willingly become David Cameron’s human shields, haemorrhaging support in the process,” he wrote in Tribune magazine.
He continued: “Week after week it is Lib Dem Ministers like Danny Alexander and Vince Cable who find themselves in TV studios defending what are essentially Conservative policies in a predominantly Conservative Government. David Cameron must think Christmas has come early.”