If you asked a Lib Dem MP whether they would abstain on tuition fees given a free vote, the answer would almost certainly be no. Most of them have very strong views on the matter. Vince Cable just spelled out the obvious: his “personal instinct” is to vote for the policy he developed.

Yet when 57 Lib Dem MPs gather in one room, strange things begin to happen to their judgement.

Even Nick Clegg is now seriously considering the mass abstention option — bravely leading his party to sit on the fence.

To be fair, there are no good options. They will be punished for breaking their pledge to vote against a rise. But it seems that after countless hours of excruciating debate, they’ve decided the best way to minimise the pain is to not vote at all.

Why? Clegg and Simon Hughes are placing a premium on unity. They fear the party will look shambolic by splitting three ways — with some ministers voting for, some ministers and MPs abstaining and the die-hards voting against. Abstention is the best compromise to build a common defence.

But what might be best for the group in Westminster is not necessarily the best election strategy. Just remember the reaction to the Lisbon treaty vote — the last Lib Dem attempt to “constructively abstain” on a big issue. They were mocked for having no views.

It is of course a bit different now because the right to abstain is enshrined in the coalition agreement. But the big problem for the party is not unity. It is voters thinking they have reneged on their principles.

The pledge on tuition fees was always a bit of a shoddy compromise — most of the party leadership knew it was undeliverable. They should think twice before reaching another united position that looks faintly ridiculous and fails to reflect their real views.

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