The vote that Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat colleagues had been dreading finally arrived yesterday, when the trebling of tuition fees came before the House of Commons.
After a fraught debate the coalition government won out by 323 votes to 302. But the divisions among Lib Dem MPs that had been played out in the media were reflected in the final vote.
The Liberal Democrats fought the general election on a policy of abolishing tuition fees, and all of its MPs signed up to a pledge to oppose any increase. Indeed, Nick Clegg even made a special video for the National Union of Students on the issue.
But internal party documents suggest that the Lib Dems were thinking of abandoning their pledge even before the election. And the coalition agreement they negotiated gave their MPs the right to abstain on the issue.
Then Vince Cable, as Business Secretary, agreed to a recommendation that fees should be trebled.
After weeks of student protests, pressure on individual MPs and angry exchanges during Prime Minister’s Questions, the position of the Lib Dems on the day of the vote seemed as confused as ever.
Vince Cable, who had farcically considered abstaining on his own proposal, eventually decided that he should perhaps support himself. Others performed contortions as they tried to justify their u-turn. A pledge isn’t really a promise, they argued. Perhaps the pledge was a mistake in the first place, said others.
Attention turned to the House of Commons as Vince Cable made the case for the increase in fees, with Clegg sitting to his right. The atmosphere was noisy and the Speaker had to call for order several times. John Denham for Labour responded strongly, making the case for students. And then a range of backbench MPs from all parties made their contributions.
Three amendments had been tabled, one on scrapping fees entirely, one on phasing them out and a third calling for a delay in the vote until the government’s higher education policy could be clarified in a white paper.
But the Speaker had decided not to allow any of them to be put to the vote. So come 5:35pm, it was simply a case of a vote on Cable’s proposal, and the government won out by just 21 votes. Six Conservative MPs voted against the government while two others abstained.
28 Liberal Democrat MPs voted with the government while 21 voted against. A further 6 abstained, with two absent on government business. Or, to put it another way, the majority of Lib Dems voted against the policy on which they stood for election.
At the end of the day, Vince Cable may have got his policy approved, but at what cost to his party? The divisions that exist between its right wing, those so close to the Conservatives that they could be part of Cameron’s party, and the traditional Liberals is now clear for all to see.
Opinion poll ratings have fallen as low as 8% and it is clear that the public has lost much of whatever confidence it may have had in the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg now faces a crucial test of his leadership. With elections in the devolved countries due next year, along with local government elections in England, the party could lose many seats in a massive voter backlash.
Can Clegg persuade voters to trust his party after they have watched him do a deal with the Tories, back massive spending cuts, vote to increase VAT and now perform another u-turn on his own manifesto policy?
Or will the electorate simply see a party where a majority of its MPs have broken their word in order to support a Tory government rather than stand up for the people who elected them?