How to avoid a three-way car crash with most ministers voting for the Browne Report, some ministers and many backbench MPs abstaining and yet a further group of Lib Dem MPs voting against is now the main debate within the Parliamentary Party over tuition fees.
Some changes to the original Browne report proposals have already been promised, but the debate has now moved on from the question of whether or not there could or should be more modifications to how people will vote on that modified package, which is unlikely to change any further at this point.
Until fairly recently, the party’s whipping operation was fairly relaxed about MPs abstaining or even voting against whilst most ministers voted for. But as the prospect of a three-way split has become closer, it has concentrated minds and there is now a serious attempt to unify on abstaining with Simon Hughes one of the strongest proponents.
This faces two major obstacles. First, the mood music up till now has been very firmly that Clegg and Cable would vote for the package. However, news such as the letter from over 100 Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidates is not being ignored. Nor are the expressions of frustration from several MPs and candidates who were not sure about signing the NUS pledge pre-election (either because of the policy in it or because of its specific wording) and were firmly told that the party’s policy was that they should sign it.
The second obstacle is that a significant number of Lib Dem MPs have already said that they will vote against, and if all the rest abstain and there are a few Conservative rebels… the numbers being to look rather tight.
Given that a defeat of the Browne report would cause the issue to come back again and also make it very hard to persuade the Conservatives to continue to whip their Lords so strongly on Liberal Democrat measures in the coalition agreement, my money is on sufficient ministers voting for the Browne report if that is what is required to get it through. But it may yet be possible to avoid a three-way split – and with the vote set to be before Christmas, we will soon know.