Last week, the trebling of student fees was the only real topic of debate. I must admit there were times I dared to dream that the Government could actually be defeated. But, as they currently have a majority of 84 votes, it was never going to be an easy win.
The atmosphere in Parliament was febrile. We were trying to calculate the size of the Lib Dem rebellion and then we heard of Tories who were pledging to join us.
Let’s face it, if the Government couldn’t keep their own party in order, then what hope did they have of keeping the Coalition together.
On Monday and Tuesday, things were looking hopeful. I was praying for just a few more Tories to come over. Surely to Heaven the wavering Lib Dems could not help but follow suit. After all, the Lib Dems had fought the last election courting, and ofttimes winning, the student vote and promised no increase.
Psephologists in Parliament instantly began to do the figures. It was clear that the Government Whips were nervous. They tabled a motion to restrict the time allowed for the fees debate, due to start at 10pm on Tuesday night.
I made quick phone calls to some Labour MPs, to tell them what was scheduled. It meant a very late night. No one complained. If the Government wanted to try hiding their skulduggery at 10pm on a Tuesday night, that was alright with us. We would stay till the wee hours to try force the Government to back down and make time for a proper, not curtailed, debate. I had two dozen willing speakers lined up at short notice for our side, and I hadn’t had to strong arm anyone.
The Government must have realised they had made a mistake. We were there for the long haul. They couldn’t risk Tory morale being damaged by a vote at 3am. They pulled the motion, re-schedulng for Wednesday night, starting at 7.00pm.
On Wednesday night we tried a good old-fashioned fillibuster. We had the numbers in the chamber and the will to talk through the night to scupper the business programmed for the following day. Sadly, we were cut off by a successful closure motion at 11pm. It was a long shot, but one we had to try.
Thursday dawned. The Lib Dem day of judgement.
Vince Cable, a man for whom I once had some respect, was woeful in his defence of his indefensible policy. He did not command the respect of the chamber and there was little support, even from his own side.
John Denham, in contrast, was magnificent. He spoke about the huge burden of debt for graduates and enlightened the House on David Cameron’s pledge not to increase fees for prospective Chinese and overseas students. Cameron had told the Chinese,
"We won't go on increasing so fast the fees on overseas students. We have done the difficult thing in our Government, which is to put up contributions from British students."
So now we know.
Every single Labour MP turned out on Thursday to vote against the rise in tuition fees and the Government’s majority was reduced to 21. More than half of Lib Dem backbenchers rebelled, as did eight Conservatives. But, sadly, it was not enough.
The Government won the day. Our sons and daughters will be paying off their debts for the next 30 years.