Liberal Democrat MPs should be told to “bite the bullet” and rally behind tuition fee rises, the party’s former higher education spokesman said in an appeal for stronger leadership.
Lord Willis called on Business Secretary Vince Cable to abandon his offer to abstain on his own policy in a Commons vote in an attempt to prevent a party split.
Some Lib Dems are determined to vote against the proposals – raising the cap on fees from £3,375 to £9,000 – in keeping with a pledge signed during the general election to oppose any increase.
Party leader Nick Clegg has declined to say how he will vote despite publicly backing the policy, amid intense efforts to find a way to maintain a united front on the issue.
Under the coalition deal with the Tories, Lib Dem MPs are allowed to abstain if they cannot accept proposals on higher education funding – an exemption Mr Cable signalled he was willing to use in the interests of party unity.
His stance was condemned by Labour, which said it was “outrageous” for the minister in charge of a policy to contemplate not voting for it – a highly unusual departure from the convention of collective ministerial responsibility.
Lord Willis, a former party whip who retired as an MP in May, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The reality is that we either bite the bullet and believe that the … proposals … are the ones to take us forward in terms of higher education or we don’t.
“They do take us forward and it is time the Liberal Democrats now simply got on board and said ‘Well, let us back them, let us sell them’. I would like Nick to say that and I would also like Vince to say that.
“I hope Vince will reconsider that position (on abstaining).”