The decision by the Liberal Democrats to exercise a party whip, and abstain instead of vote on whether to support Jeremy Hunt marked a genuine and significant rift in the government. However, it will do the Lib Dems little good.
Personally, I think the Lib Dems should have voted with the Conservatives and supported Hunt, and repaid the loyalty shown by many Tories to David Laws, and to a lesser extent Vince Cable.
As my colleague Martin Shapland rightly pointed out, the vote was a symbolic one anyway, and so, had further information come to light, Nick Clegg could have continued to pressure David Cameron privately to refer Hunt.
Alternatively, the Lib Dems could have backed the motion, reiterating our stance on press plurality, and taught David Cameron a lesson for not sorting out this internal problem before it got to this point. That would have looked principled.
However, by abstaining we have neither demonstrated the courage of our convictions and abided by collective responsibility, nor been brave and pushed Jeremy Hunt closer to the cliff edge for what could be a very serious breach of the ministerial code.
Instead we have sat on the sidelines, and allowed the other two parties to fight it out. It’s no wonder people still ask what the point of the Lib Dems is.
The fallout for this decision will continue for the rest of the Parliament too. A quick Twitter search will show a high level of resentment being publicly displayed by Conservative backbenchers.
Some were dragged from hospital beds and honeymoons in order to walk through the ‘No’ lobby as a consequence of the Lib Dem abstention. Future Lib Dem policy initiatives could be scuppered as revenge, starting with Lords reform.
The motion to refer the culture secretary for a breach of the ministerial code was Labour just toying with the coalition anyway – nothing the Lib Dems could have done would have made them immune to attack. An abstention has though meant that we can now get attacked from both sides.
There is little doubt in my mind that under the Westminster magnifying class this single incident has been blown out of all proportion. However, the political ramifications for this weak gesture could scupper the Liberal Democrats for the next three years.