MPs agonise in tuition fees debate

By Alex Stevenson, Peter Wozniak and Ian Dunt

An angry and emotional five-hour debate in the Commons preceded the crunch vote on tuition fees.

Wavering rebels sought to explain their dilemmas as party whips and senior officials sought to frantically convince them to vote with the government or abstain.

The debate became increasingly tense in its final hour as the vote approached, but was at its most turbulent at the beginning when business secretary Vince Cable addressed MPs.

“None of us pretend this is an easy subject,” Mr Cable said.

Labour backbenchers were heard to heckle his “rank hypocrisy”, however. Outside, the chants of thousands of gathered protestors could be heard throughout parliament.

Flanked by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, a nervous looking Mr Cable pressed ahead with his argument despite a barrage of angry attacks from the opposition benches.

There was extraordinary anger on display from Labour MPs as Mr Cable repeatedly refused to give way to other MPs.

When he finished speaking, the prime minister and deputy prime minister walked out the chamber.

“As the two architects of this policy they don’t have the courtesy to listen to both sides of this debate,” Labour’s John Denham said.

The shadow business secretary said he would not engage in political point scoring about Liberal Democrat U-turns.

Instead he raised the 80% higher education funding cuts planned by the coalition and ended his speech with a personal appeal to uncertain ministers and their backbenchers.

The party’s MPs had to vote with Labour against the policy or “forfeit the right to call themselves a progressive political party,” he argued.

Mr Denham, who resigned over the Iraq war, issued a personal plea to Lib Dems to rebel against the policy.

“It is very hard to stand aside from friends and colleagues with who you have shared many a battle,” he told the Commons.

“But the self respect you gain far outweighs any loss of income. There is usually a way back.

“This decision matters so much to so many people. I say to the House – if you don’t believe in it, vote against it.”

As backbenchers lined up to give their opinion on the measures, stormy scenes ensued, with Labour’s former home secretary David Blunkett accusing both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats of being “out of touch” with ordinary people in the country.

The sentiment was echoed by Labour backbencher Robert Flello, who argued that the coalition ministers were “more interested in promoting elitism” than getting a better deal for students.

Tory rebels Andrew Percy and Julian Lewis announced their intention to vote against the government. Mr Percy said: “On this particular issue, I think the government is wrong.”

“There is a choice to be made. I don’t think the case has been made… we have not won the argument.

“I have struggled with this. All I would urge is to think again, to have a proper grown-up consideration of all the alternatives.”

But he criticised Labour’s attitude to the issue, adding: “People who support this are not cruel, they are not elitist. I do not like the way this debate has been polarised.”

Former universities minister David Lammy rained vitriol on the government’s proposals, arguing they did nothing to enhance the prospects for ethnic minority and poor students. He was joined by former Labour leadership candidate Diane Abbott, who said the government “entirely failed to recognise” the problems faced by families confronted with the prospects of higher debt.

But Conservative backbencher Sam Gyimah hit back, saying: “If there is any lie that is being perpetrated in this debate, it is that working class people” would be worse off under the proposals.

“If we are going to be responsible in this debate, then we’ve got to explain the policy rather than trading the same arguments made six years ago [for the introduction of top-up fees].”

Lib Dem rebel John Leech praised the proposals for the fact that lower income graduates will pay less, but argued: “The flaw in the proposals is that no one goes to university thinking they will be among [the] bottom 25% of graduates. A number of them will be put off from going in the first place.”

The Manchester Withington MP had scorn for Labour’s opposition, however, adding: “All we’re getting from the party opposite is pathetic political opportunism. The House should be under no illusion that they would be doing exactly the same.”

The DUP’s Sammy Wilson meanwhile called the Liberal Democrat leadership’s actions “not a compromise but an abject surrender”.

Conservative Mr Lewis said of the business secretary: “He has wrestled very publicly with his conscience and his conscience has been the loser.”

An opposition amendment had been phrased in the broadest possible terms to win over would-be rebels, but Speaker John Bercow announced he will only allow a single division on business secretary Vince Cable’s motion.

The order paper helped reveal key figures within the rebellion, however. The opposition amendment calling for more public consultation on the issue had been signed by Tory MPs Julian Lewis and Andrew Percy – and Lib Dems including John Leech, Mark Williams, Ian Swales, Julian Huppert and Mr Mulholland.

“It is clear that the coalition proposals for the highest public university fees in the world have not gained public support,” shadow business secretary John Denham commented.

Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes was among those who had already decided he was not prepared to support the government.

“I believe that for a constituency like mine, the level of fee increase… may have a significant disincentive effect to the sort of youngsters who want to go to university. I will abstain,” he told the BBC earlier.

Outside parliament, protestors had little sympathy for MPs planning on abstaining – a move allowed for in the coalition agreement.

One couple sat under a placard reading: “Abstention is for cowards.” Ed Miliband also called on those Lib Dem MPs who disagreed with the policy to vote against it.

Overnight a row broke out about the non-participation of the Lib Dems’ energy secretary Chris Huhne, who is attending climate change talks in Cancun.

The Lib Dems had hoped to find a Labour MP opposing the plans who would stay away from the Commons, cancelling out Mr Huhne’s absence. When the opposition refused to cooperate Mr Huhne hit out, accusing them of putting “short-term political point-scorning ahead of the long-term interests of the planet”.

Labour replied this morning that the Lib Dems should not have agreed to vote on tuition fees while climate change talks were taking place.

A spokesperson said: “Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne shouldn’t play party politics by blaming his problem on Labour. And if they are looking for MPs to pair with, they could ask those Lib Dem MPs who have already said that they will vote against their own government to cooperate.”