Just a few months ago, if anyone had told a Liberal Democrat MP that their party's most beloved figure, Vince Cable, would soon be standing at the Dispatch Box announcing a huge increase in tuition fees, they would have dismissed such talk as lunacy.
Tuition fees have been close to their hearts for a long time, with many representing constituencies with a heavy student presence. Officially, the party's long-term aim remains abolishing them altogether. Yet despite the importance of the issue, many Liberal Democrat backbenchers were backing away from a noisy confrontation with their party's leadership over an increase in fees yesterday.
Some, like Stephen Williams, the MP for Bristol West, indicated that they had been influenced by Mr Cable's promise to introduce measures designed to help those from poorer backgrounds gain university places.
Even those still firmly opposed, such as the Cambridge MP Julian Huppert, were telling anyone who would listen that things would have been so much worse without Mr Cable at the helm.
It all means that the Coalition Government will not have any problems in passing the university funding reforms. It should have a safe majority, with some backbench Liberal Democrat MPs at least choosing to abstain in any vote. Some, like Mr Cable and Nick Clegg, will surely have to vote in favour of a policy they endorsed in the Commons yesterday.
Yet the party's about-face may have a more profound effect outside the Commons. It has already seen its opinion poll rating slide to 15 per cent, according to the latest survey for The Independent by ComRes, confirming the tendency for junior partners in coalitions to suffer as a result of their decision to join the Government.
Backing down over such a totemic cause will only underline in the minds of voters that Liberal Democrats will be forced to make some seriously difficult compromises to keep the Government together.Reuse content