It is not that unusual for MPs in a governing party or coalition to be split three ways. Many votes have some government MPs voting against and some abstaining.
What is unusual is for Ministers to be contemplating abstaining on their own policies! Indeed, that is against the rules. As I understood the Coalition Agreement, the provision to allow Lib Dems to abstain on tuition fees only kicked in if Coalition Ministers could not reach agreement on the topic. As they demonstrably did reach agreement, around the proposals of a senior Lib Dem, there should be no question of Lib Dem Ministers abstaining. They are bound by collective responsibility.
Coalition MPs are regularly divided over the issue of the EU. We have seen up to 37 Conservatives vote against – on the issue of the EU budget – and more abstain. Within the government there are also important differences of view. The Hagueites seem to want to give more powers to the EU, proposing the expansion of the diplomatic service, expansion of Criminal Justice powers and accepting a new Treaty to strengthen economic governance. The sceptics, like Liam Fox, Owen Paterson and Iain Duncan Smith presumably disagree with this approach and should be fighting to resist it from within the government.
It is entirely healthy that there are disagreements within Cabinet over big issues, and disagreements with the backbenches. What is the point of Cabinet government and Parliament if there we are not allowed to disagree and debate? There has been a healthy debate on tuition fees, and doubtless some Lib Dems will stick with the view they put to the electorate in May. Their Ministers have moved on and proposed a new policy to the government which it has accepted . It is now their duty to vote it through.