When The Speaker called a division, the Labour side roared a passionate No while the coalition benches delivered a rather muted Aye. I did not see a single Lib Dem open their mouth at this point. Instead, they sat on their benches looking emotionally exhausted. Even those Lib Dems who have been proved right in their warning about the party’s position on fees—notably, David Laws and Jeremy Browne—appeared downcast.
In the end, the government won but with a much reduced majority. 21 Lib Dems voted against the coalition, as did six Tories. Simon Hughes abstained despite Ed Miliband’s entreaties to come with him into the no lobby.
This meant that the Lib Dem’s three senior figures split three ways. Clegg for, the party president Tim Farron against, and the deputy leader abstaining.
Nick Clegg and his ministerial colleagues did, I think, do the right thing today. But Clegg cannot escape blame for accepting and actively campaigning for a policy that he knew to be unrealistic and undeliverable.
One person who deserves a huge amount of praise tonight is David Willetts who has played such an important role in the development of this policy. His speech wrapping up for the government was an eloquent explanation of why the coalition is doing what it is doing. He was also right that all three parties when in government have come to the same conclusion, that you need fees paid for with loans provided by the taxpayer.
A side-effect of tonight’s vote will be more chuntering about the Tory whipping operation. In the end, six Tories voted against the coalition and two—including a PPS who has had to resign—abstained. This is not what the party leadership was expecting at the beginning of the week and is yet another example of the whips not having their fingers on the right pulses.