Ed Miliband had a look of mischief in his eye as he walked across the Commons floor, placed his hand on Simon Hughes’s back and pointed the Liberal Democrat deputy leader towards the No division lobby.
Mr Hughes stood his ground to make a “constructive abstention” but his anguish was plain to see. He had still been wavering only hours before.
The Labour leader’s gesture was just one moment in an afternoon of torment endured by those Lib Dem MPs brave enough to sit through a five-hour debate they had dreaded since entering the coalition.
Gareth Thomas, the shadow universities spokesman, caught the mood, lampooning the Lib Dems as “the back end of a horse” at a Christmas panto.
Given the high stakes, Lib Dem turnout was sparse. Some 21 MPs disobeyed Nick Clegg’s injunction to “walk through the fire” and voted against the government. But just two refuseniks aired their views in the Commons debate: John Leech and Greg Mulholland. “Sometimes governments are wrong and sometimes you need the courage to say so and I am doing that today,” Mr Mulholland said.
By contrast, the two Lib Dem ministerial aides who quit their jobs were silent and barely seen. Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, the two former party leaders turned rebels, appeared only for as long as necessary to vote against Mr Clegg.
Some of the strongest cases made against the proposals came from the six Tory rebels. Andrew Percy, MP for Brigg and Goole, one of the most deprived Tory constituencies, said the government was “wrong”.
“I can only think about the impact these fees would have had on myself and my family . . . Would my parents have encouraged me to attend university had they thought I was going to come away with debts of about £40,000 or £50,000? I don’t think so,’’ he said.
The criticism was echoed by Edward Leigh, the former chair of the public accounts committee, who warned that the £9,000 fees would put off “middle Britain” from going to university. One of the most barbed attacks on Vince Cable, the business secretary proposing the legislation, came from his coalition partner Julian Lewis, the maverick Tory MP for New Forest East. He said Mr Cable “has wrestled very publicly with his conscience and his conscience has turned out to be the loser”.
Yet even as the baiting went on, Labour MPs were far from comfortable, suffering taunts from Tories and Lib Dems over “shamelessly” and “opportunistically” abandoning a policy of tuition fees that they introduced in government.
Blairite former ministers sat stony-faced as their colleagues denounced the evils of fees.
In the event, with a mix of threats and rewards, the whips contained the rebellion to numbers that were embarrassing but not critical. More Lib Dems, a total of 27, voted in favour of the reform than the 21 who voted against.