Nick Clegg's decision to order Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain from today's Commons vote on Jeremy Hunt is a significant moment in the short history of the coalition. With the exception of last year's vote on a DUP motion celebrating David Cameron's EU "veto", it is the first mass abstention by the Lib Dems while in government. Clegg's move was reportedly prompted by his fury at Cameron's refusal to refer Hunt to Alex Allan, the adviser on ministers' interests (the subject of the Labour motion), even after the Culture Secretary's dubious evidence to the Leveson inquiry. The Lib Dem abstention will not threaten the government's majority (although, in an indication of how seriously the Tories are taking the vote, Conservative MP Justin Tomlinson has been ordered to return from his honeymoon in Mauritius to vote) and the motion is, in any case, non-binding. But the act is rich with political symbolism. Confronted by Cameron's repeated failure to hold Hunt to account, the Lib Dems have reasserted their independence.
The Tories are still downplaying the significance of the move, with one aide noting that it is "a party political motion not government business". On the Today programme this morning, housing minister Grant Shapps said it was simply "a reminder that we have different perspectives on things." Conservative backbenchers, however, are proving less understanding and have already warned Clegg not to count on their support the next time that scandal befalls a Lib Dem cabinet minister (as it frequently does). One Tory MP described the move as "an act of war".
Labour will welcome another opportunity to exploit coalition discontent but many of the party's MPs will rightly denounce this as another "miserable little compromise" by Clegg. If the Lib Dems believe that Hunt should be referred to Allan, then they should simply vote in favour of the motion, not abstain. Once again, Clegg has said one thing (refer Hunt) and done another (abstained), the problem that has long dogged his leadership.
The defence proffered by his office is that he did not want to support a party (Labour) with a history of "cosy" relations with the Murdochs - the Lib Dems are proud of their status as the one major party never to fall under the spell of the Wizard of Oz. But this backwards-looking defence does not bear scrutiny. Labour is now led by a man who has repeatedly apologised for his failure to intervene earlier over phone-hacking and who led the charge against News International last summer. Another explanation put forward this morning is that the Lib Dems cannot vote with a party that "lied about" the Iraq war. Again, this defence makes no sense when one considers Miliband's early opposition to the war.
From a political perspective, Clegg's decision to abstain is the worst of all possible worlds. He will earn the ire of the Tories, whilst receiving no compensatory support from Labour. In the meantime, attention moves to the Leveson inquiry, where one Nicholas William Peter Clegg is appearing from 10am.