As police clashed with student protesters in violent scenes outside Parliament, the votes of Liberal Democrat MPs ensured the passage of the Coalition Government's plan to allow English universities to charge up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees.
Nick Clegg failed to persuade a majority of his 57 MPs to support the controversial measure last night, as 21 Liberal Democrats voted against and another eight abstained or did not vote, while only 28 voted in favour. It was the biggest rebellion against the Liberal Democrat leadership since the party was formed in 1988.
The Liberal Democrat revolt hardened during a five-hour debate, against a backdrop of clashes outside as an estimated 30,000 demonstrators marched on Parliament. Last night a protester attacked a car containing Prince Charles and his wife Camilla in Regent Street, London, as they were on their way to the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. The car's side window was cracked.
After metal crush-barriers were hurled outside Parliament, the Metropolitan Police said 12 officers were seriously hurt, with six requiring hospital treatment and one suffering serious neck injuries. Twenty-two protesters were injured. and 22 people were arrested. There was criticism of the police's tactics of "kettling" the protesters in Parliament Square. Demonstrators complained that their containment prevented them attending a candlelit vigil on the nearby Victoria Embankment.
After the vote, protesters smashed bomb-proof windows at the Treasury as they tried to get into the building, while others attacked the Supreme Court building off Parliament Square.
After a passionate debate, the Commons approved the fees hike by 323 votes to 302, and the Government's majority of 84 was cut to just 21, its lowest since the Coalition was formed.
Two Liberal Democrat MPs, Mike Crockart and Jenny Willott, and one Tory MP, Lee Scott, resigned their posts as parliamentary private secretaries to ministers because they could not bring themselves to support the rise. Six Tories opposed it and others abstained.
The landmark debate will lead to universities charging at least £6,000 a year in fees from the autumn of 2012 and see the virtual trebling of fees to £9,000 a year for some courses. It was also a watershed moment for the Liberal Democrats. Allies of Mr Clegg hope it marks their transition from a party of protest to a serious party of government. But his internal critics fear his ditching of the party's election pledge to scrap tuition fees is a betrayal from which it will not recover.
Labour pointed out that the Government's majority of 21 would have been wiped out without the votes of Mr Clegg and 27 colleagues. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, called it " a bad day for democracy". He added: "It doesn't just damage ... the Liberal Democrats; it damages trust in politics as a whole. They did get their proposals through but they have damaged trust in themselves profoundly. The idea that they are a party that can be trusted has gone; the idea that they can be a progressive party has gone."
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president, and two former party leaders, Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell, voted against, while the deputy leader, Simon Hughes, abstained. Although all 18 Liberal Democrat ministers voted with the Government, some made clear it was with a heavy heart. One MP said Mr Clegg patted the back of a "distraught" Lynne Featherstone, the Equalities Minister, as they walked through the division lobbies. Another minister said: "Thank God that's over – it's been a very difficult time."
Tory whips also worked overtime. Yet six still voted against the Government: Andrew Percy, David Davis, the former shadow Home Secretary, Philip Davies, Julian Lewis, Mark Reckless and Jason McCartney. One rebel Tory said: "There is a lot of disquiet on our benches."
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, insisted: "Today's vote has been an important step in turning the Coalition's commitment to deliver a high-quality university sector that is more responsive to the needs of students into a reality." Mr Cable said he was "proud" of the package: "I don't pretend, none of us pretend that this is an easy subject. Of course it isn't. We have had to make difficult choices."
But Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, said: "Too many politicians decided they had an interest in their political career. We want them to face the people they have lied to, the people whom they have misled. Frankly these people don't deserve to be in politics, and it is right that students use the democratic process to try to remove them from power immediately."
Benjamin Ramm, editor of The Liberal, said: "This legislation weakens liberalism and mocks democracy. For the party that called itself 'the real alternative', today is at best a capitulation, at worst a betrayal. In this coalition, the Lib Dems are the cloak that hides the dagger."
Rebels and Abstainers
Lib Dems who voted against the rise
Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber), Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset, Poole N), Sir Menzies Campbell (Fife NE), Michael Crockart (Edinburgh W), Tim Farron, (Westmorland, Lonsdale), Andrew George (St Ives), Mike Hancock (Portsmouth S), Julian Huppert (Cambridge), John Leech (Manchester Withington), Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne), Greg Mul- holland (Leeds NW), John Pugh (Southport), Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute), Dan Rogerson (Cornwall N), Bob Russell (Colchester), Adrian Sanders (Torbay), Ian Swales (Redcar), Mark Williams (Ceredigion), Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire), Jenny Willott (Cardiff C), Simon Wright (Norwich S).
Lib Dems who abstained/didn't vote
Lorely Burt (Solihull), Martin Horwood (Cheltenham)*, Simon Hughes (Bermondsey, Old Southwark), Chris Huhne (Eastleigh)*, Tessa Munt (Wells), Sir Robert Smith (Aberdeenshire W, Kincardine)*, John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross), Stephen Williams (Bristol W). [*MPs were abroad.]
Tories who voted against the rise
Philip Davies (Shipley), David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden), Julian Lewis (New Forest E), Jason McCartney (Colne Valley), Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole), Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood).
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