In a video message he said: “We made a pledge, we did not stick to it, and for that I am sorry.”
“It was a pledge made with the best of intentions – but we should not have made a promise we were not absolutely sure we could deliver. I shouldn’t have committed to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money around.”
However it was made clear that the Deputy Prime Minister was not apologising for his December 2010 decision to back the Conservatives and vote in favour of raising the cap on university fees from £3,290 to £9,000 per year but merely for making an unrealistic promise in the first place.
The decision to apologise for a recent policy decision is highly unusual in Westminster politics and shows the extent to which student fees have damaged Clegg’s personal brand. He is keen to move on from the issue and assert his leadership ahead of this weekend’s Lib Dem conference.
It is understood that Clegg personally took the decision to issue the statement, which will be used as a party political broadcast next week.
“We have apologised before but people were so angry they weren’t listening,” business secretary Vince Cable explained on BBC’s Newsnight.
“Nick wants to make it absolutely clear that there is a distinction between the pledge – which was wrong – and the policy which we’re now operating, which we don’t apologise for and is actually in many ways an improvement.”
Cable is the favourite to take over the Lib Dem leadership if Clegg steps down before the next election. Earlier this month a poll suggested the party’s support would rise from eight to 11 per cent of voters if Cable was in charge.
Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party said of the apology: “This was not just the small print of his manifesto, this was Nick Clegg’s key election promise when he asked people to vote for his party. It is not good enough for him to just brush that promise aside.”
Yesterday Ipsos Mori research revealed that the proportion of the public who are unhappy with Clegg’s performance has risen from 58 per cent to 66 per cent over the last month.