CLEMENT Davies is not much remembered nowadays but he was leader of the Liberal Party for a decade from 1945 when it seldom could number its MPs in double figures. He once said that he did not really lead a party but rather “a number of individuals who, because of their adherence to the party, come together only to express completely divergent views.” I thought of Davies after the House of Commons debate on university tuition fees on Thursday. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, voted in favour of the government proposal to raise fees threefold; his deputy, Simon Hughes, abstained from voting; the party's president Tim Farron voted against, as did two former leaders, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy. Despite Mr Clegg's intensive arm-twisting, only nine of the thirty-eight Liberal Democrat MPs without government positions voted in favour of the coalition's proposal.

The government won in the end by a majority of 21 -- small enough to make David Cameron wonder whether he will one day face defeat on an issue that unites dissident Conservatives (there were only six this time), rebellious Liberal Democrats and the whole of the Labour representation in the Commons. It is difficult to predict what issue might bring that grouping together in the voting lobbies but politics is a volatile business and as the unintended consequences of coalition policies begin to show through anything might happen.


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