Tuition fees: The cost of victory to the Lib Dems

By Ross Hawkins
Political correspondent, BBC News

  • Published

This has not been easy. Very difficult choices have been made.

That was how the Business Secretary Vince Cable described the process of drawing up reforms to higher education funding.

Twenty one Lib Dem MPs rebelled, two of them unpaid ministerial aides - Jenny Willott and Mike Crockart - who both resigned.

That reduced the Lib Dem "payroll vote" of MPs with jobs as ministers and aides to 21. Eight abstained or were absent.

Six Conservatives rebelled. Two abstained, including the Tory ministerial aide Lee Scott who resigned.

While the vote was tighter than many anticipated it represented only the second largest rebellion in this parliament. Thirty seven Conservatives rebelled in a vote on the EU budget.


At issue for many was a pledge made by all Lib Dem candidates during the election to vote against any rise in fees. Many at Westminster wondered just why Nick Clegg and Vince Cable signed up to that, and allowed their candidates to do the same.

Their plan to cope with the consequences of the pledge failed. It would have seen all Lib Dems - backbenchers and ministers alike - abstain. The aim was to hold the party together. The reality was it risked exposing them to the derision of their opponents.

Mr Cable always supported his own policy. But his suggestion that he might abstain followed by the announcement he would vote for the plans provided a saga he could have lived without.

As they debated how to deal with the quandary over the past few weeks, some Lib Dems MPs looked nervously at their colleagues.

As long as senior MPs like former leaders Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy were expected to vote against, they were not prepared to simply abstain for fear of looking bad by comparison.

Not the end

This is not the end of the affair.

Ministers who have been frustrated their efforts to explain the details of the policy have been drowned out by protests and talk of Commons rebellion will hope they can now get their message heard.

They believe once people have absorbed the details of the package they will be better disposed towards the policy, and agree it is more progressive than the current system.

But while the spectacle of charging police horses, fires, and sporadic violence outside Parliament will distract many from what happened on the green benches of the House of Commons, protest groups will not fail to take note and issue very public reminders of how individual Liberal Democrats voted.

The political reality is different.

Lib Dems will go into the next election saying different things to voters in their constituencies. Those who voted against will surely remind people, those who supported the policy or abstained will be called on to justify their positions.

Vince Cable's policy won the day. The question on which many Liberal Democrats will ponder is what has that victory cost their party?