The looming vote on tuition fees is wreaking such havoc on the Liberal Democrats that, even with their relatively small band of MPs, their vote may split four ways. I make that hung, drawn and now officially quartered within seven months of the coalition. Not bad going.          

We have been invited to believe that this splintering of the party vote is a reason for ridicule, a laughing stock scenario that we should all find terribly amusing. Or unamusingly terrible if you haven’t yet been to university.

For me, that ridiculous scenario would have been the mass abstention that was mooted last week and correctly booted into the long grass. How ridiculous would it have been for each Lib Dem MP to not take a position on a tripling of fees? Now, on the contrary, each Lib Dem MP will be scrutinising the proposals in the minutest of detail, drawing their own conclusions and voting accordingly in the full glare of their constituents. Democracy in action and a far cry from the heavily whipped voting that we have known and resented for much of the past decade. What, after all, were we all hoping ‘new politics’ to be with such a large deficit to deal with?

The perfect example of how constrained, kettled even, we have become in our parliamentary expectations is the euphoric joy that was felt in Scotland when Malcolm Chisholm, a single MSP, decided to back the SNP’s proposal of minimum pricing. For a beautiful Holyrood moment, the merits of a motion weren’t seen through the prism of red, yellow, orange or blue but for what a policy was and for what it could do.      

Now, the Liberal Democrats had a pledge at the last election and nothing can change that fact, as many of their MPs, including Goverment members, recognise and can’t reconcile. Indeed, Nick Clegg’s positively pious promise of a new politics so quickly followed by a broken pledge has put paid to his chances of being taken seriously in the near future but, if one was to look past that, then an appealing picture may yet emerge. Why shouldn’t the media allow a party to see a policy from different angles while drawing several conclusions?

I do enjoy the irony of opinion splitting four ways within a party that wants to maintain the three-party cosy consensus through AV but I don’t think any whipped party whose MPs all trot out to vote precisely the same way should criticise too sharply. Labour has been conspicuous in its absence throughout much of this debate, save for the NUS of course.

There is some sort of joyous democracy belying the supposedly shambolic disarray of the Liberal Democrats and if this is what it takes for MPs rather than party whips to hold parliamentary power then maybe a bit of cross-party respect for the Lib Dem rebels, and even those voting in favour, is in order.