The Sketch: All those who 'knew what was going to happen' were lying

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The Independent Online

The menu of the day was strips of seared pork with steamed clams. By a happy chance, I ran into Nick Brown. I asked him what the Chancellor had said to him the other night to change his mind. Mr Brown raised his fist, shook it at himself and went: "Wurrgghorgghh!" That sounded as persuasive as anything else in the debate. It certainly worked on him.

But no one knows, even as the debate went on. If anyone tells you they know what's going on, remember they are lying. It's late in the day now and No 10's mood swings go from one end of the spectrum to the other. The Chancellor is saying Mr Brown brought 30 rebels with him. By 5pm, they could only count four.

The intellectual foundation of all this is very uncertain. Every statistic in the debate has an equal and opposite counterpart. Some say that fees have a negligible effect on working-class access, others say one in four working-class students who get eight good GCSEs don't go. This lot say top-ups are the only way to get universities the money they need; that lot say top-ups will provide no extra cash at all.

Over here they say modest repayments are fair, over there they say two cohabiting doctors will be starting out life with a combined debt of £130,000. Tories say the political control of universities through the Access Regulator is tightening inexorably; Labour rebels say that bureaucrats will have "fewer teeth than a Glasgow granny". Phil Willis, a Liberal Democrat, says the favourable research the Government keeps quoting is the only favourable research available, that it comes from Australia and was conducted by the person who introduced the policy. The Ulster Unionists say their universities are 30 per cent less funded than English ones and yet have a higher proportion of lower socios studying there. Charles Clarke laid out his latest concessions and denounced the opposition in the most shameless terms. "If they vote against this Bill," he said, "they will be voting for up-front fees!" The existing government framework, that is.

"Defeating this Bill will strip universities of the funds they need!" (Surely, if it came to it, Mr Clarke could just give them the money?) The only more shameless remark actually came from Mr Willis: "We keep our manifesto promises!" (At least, they did the last time they won an election in 1916.)

Only one thing is clear: Yeo Must Geo. Tim Yeo, speaking for the Conservatives, put in one of the lamest performances we've seen from the revitalised Tory front bench. His refusal to take interventions built up such a head of steam you couldn't hear him even if you tried. Claire Ward's insistent whining from the government benches sounded like one of those maddening mosquitoes when you're trying to sleep. The House is unforgiving of those who treat it with so little respect.

William Hague can have the prize for the best speech of the day. His eloquent point was so eloquently made I almost believed it. An 11-year-old had asked him how politicians could keep their word over a five-year term. "In a rare spurt of cross-party generosity that comes over us when we're talking to someone who can't vote for seven years, I told him we try, we all try," he said.

He pointed out every party in the Commons had stood on a promise not to introduce top-up fees. The body politic should keep faith with the people, he said, and, though it might suit the Tories in a narrow party sense, for the waves of public contempt to start lapping at the feet of the Labour leader, it would.

Mr Willis predicted that this was the new wave of social policy. Top-up fees. User charges. Co-payments. In transport, in health, in child care, in education: we pay for them once in tax, twice in co-payments, and some of us three times when we go private.

If this "investment" in services were made by a private company it wouldn't have survived in the market. Who knows, maybe Tony Blair won't either, win or lose, two votes this way or two votes that.