On Syria, parliament has voted to have no policy at all.

30 August 2013

11:29 AM

30 August 2013

11:29 AM

A muddle and a cock-up. For all the talk of parliament reasserting itself, last night’s vote on Syria showed a parliament that voted, twice, to oppose actions it actually supports. David Cameron has been humiliated but this was hardly a banner day for Ed Miliband either.

The House of Commons has, for now, cut off its nose to spite its face. Perhaps surgery can repair the damage. Perhaps it can’t. Because the longer and more deeply one contemplates yesterday’s events the more evident it seems that there were no winners.

The government motion was defeated. So was Labour’s amendment. Since these motions were, in essence and in most practical respects, identical one wonders what on earth has happened. Put together more than 450 MPs supported either the government motion or Labour’s amendment.

Neither motion authorised immediate military action. Neither motion handed the government a “blank cheque”. Both motions acknowledged more time, more evidence, more discussion would be needed before any final decision was taken. And both were defeated. Work that out if you can.


Parliament has voted to shut down debate even though a clear majority of MPs favour more debate. Heckuva job, chaps. For now, at least, Britain has opted out of any punitive strike on Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Few people emerge from this debacle with their credit enhanced.

The Prime Minister’s mismanagement of his party is as well-documented as it is unfortunate. Worse, however, was its handling of the debate itself. I have no idea why Nick Clegg – of all people – was permitted to make the government’s closing statement rather than William Hague.

But at least we know what David Cameron believes. The same cannot be said about Ed Miliband. The best one can say for the Labour leader is that he is hopelessly confused. Perhaps he lost control of his party too. Alternatively, his approach reeked of low cynicism. Indeed, Miliband’s approach reminded me of the kind of stuff you see in student unions across the country. Juvenile and petty; point-scoring and obstructive simply for the fun of it. That doesn’t matter much at the university level; the stakes were rather higher yesterday.

It takes some gall to extract major concessions from the government that results in a motion substantively in line with your own expressed preferences and then to vote against that motion anyway. That, however, is what Miliband appears to have done. I have no idea why Labour opposed the government motion yesterday. It did not do so on any point of principle (that would have been fine). In the circumstances, I’ve some sympathy for the government source who described the Labour leader as a “fucking cunt” and a “copper-bottomed shit”.

And I write that as someone deeply sceptical about the usefulness or wisdom of military action in Syria. “I’m not with those who rule out action” Miliband told the House yesterday. Except now he is, whether he means to be or not. The best one can say of Miliband’s approach is that it has been incompetent.

It is fine for parliament to vote against government policy. It is less fine – a lot less fine – for parliament to vote to have no policy at all. But that, thanks to yesterday’s muddle, is what it seems to have done. It is not leadership; it is abdication. At least for now. And that is not something of which to be proud.

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Show comments
  • Baron

    Nobody has yet explained how launching missiles into Syria, killing people with bombs is a punishment for Assad for killing people with sarin.

  • Coleridge1

    I’m Labour but am appalled by Miliband’s cheap political ‘victory’ in the commons achieved at the expense of gassed civilian victims of an Arab fascist regime. Miliband is a disgrace and needs to be ousted. Bring back TB!

  • The Red Bladder

    I have been waiting for the incisive analysis of Pippa Middleton on this one. Sadly her cogent and hard-hitting opinions seem to be denied us of late.

    • Wessex Man

      ah the good old envy politics of the gutter.

      • The Red Bladder

        As ever spot on – either that or an old boy crying in his beer at the levels to which once venerable and respected journals are forced to prostitute themselves on the altar of ‘celebrity’ these day. Politics? I really don’t think that enters in to it, be they from the stews of Essex or from amongst the highest in the land if their opinions are vacuous, dull and often asinine and poorly written it is my opinion that they have no place in a magazine of ‘serious content’. Here endeth the epistle from the gutter.

  • llanystumdwy

    “The best one can say for the Labour leader is that he is hopelessly confused”.

    I doubt this! Milliband saw the results of the opinion polls the day before where the public were showing less than 10% support for action. That, I suspect, is the real reason why he flipped. Labour have become totally unprincipled about everything except winning power and are desperate to win the next election and being on the side of public opinion is their way of getting it.

  • Venk Shenoi

    Sound analysis.

  • dougthedug

    Both the Conservative motion and Labour amendment were defeated because the UK parliament does not want to be part of a US missile attack on Syria.

    Whatever the actual wording was, it’s quite plain from the reaction of the hawks in the UK Government that both motion and amendment were authorising the UK Government to join in with US military action after a few political and back-covering hoops had been gone through.

    The policy of the UK Parliament is now quite clear. They do not want to act as the international fig-leaf for the coming US missile attack on Syria.

    It’s not clear if Assad’s forces launched the gas attack or if they did if Assad authorised it but even if he did, a limited missile attack which will enrage Russia and will be designed expressly not to take down Assad and allow the Jihadis in seems to be neither one thing nor the other as far as teaching Assad a lesson is concerned.

    The Parliament got it right in this respect. It’s now up to Cameron to work out a response on his own now the easy and lazy option of adding a few superfluous UK missiles to the US arsenal is off the table.

  • Richard Sage

    What utter rubbish – Cameron completely mis-read the situation – he could have accepted the Labour motion and then action would still be on table – 30 of his own party refused to back the government motion. He alone is responsible for the mess.

  • mac266

    Watching Miliband makes me sick to my stomach

    • george

      Knowing he’s running your country’s opposition should make you sicker. Just think how I feel having Obama as president. And we could have had Romney….

  • Maurice Walshe

    Have you actually read citrine or understand how parliamentary bodies work ? neither motion passed so current policy stands

  • AMT

    I struggle to see how using Chemical Weapons to kill civilians is worse than using bombs to kill civilians. I also fail to see how the Syria problem is anything to do with the UK, the humanitarian issue is the reason but the government already provided an extra £21 million in January. Also Germany, the biggest power in Europe at present, immediately ruled out any action at all and has not been condemned roundly….. The UK needs to lose its World Police tag and realise it is too poor to afford these exotic wars.

    • Nick

      I absolutely agree with you AMT.How are chemical weapons worse than convenional weapons? Maybe these goons think it’s a bit nicer to be blown to bits by a 200 pound bomb as opposed to a chemical agent.

      • Dougie

        Maybe not nicer but a lot quicker.

      • Penny

        Ruling out a direct hit – which will kill however many people are in its target area and perhaps more via falling infrastructure – I think I’d sooner take my chances with a conventional weapon than a chemical attack. Chemicals may well be more attractive to crackpot regimes because they wipe out more people with very little risk to the aggressor – with the added bonus that infrastructure is left intact. Escape would be near-on impossible because civilians are unlikely to have the time and the masks/suits needed to survive. It’s far harder, then, to provide protection for civilians. The only downside to chemicals is the possible poisoning effect that may have on the environment – I’m no chemist so I can’t elaborate on that.

        I get the argument that dead is dead, regardless of the method, but none of us would wish to see nuclear bombs used – yet by the “dead is dead” rationale, the end result is still the same.

        • Penny

          Thinking a little more about this: I’d also say that a chemical attack makes conquest on a large scale far easier, too. Dropping a well-calculated number of chemical bombs on, say, London, would have the desired effect in far, far less time than if the aggressor had to use conventional weapons. It’s a method that I’d imagine is abhorred not merely because it’s a horrible way to die but because defence against it cannot be achieved via conventional weapons and conquest must be much easier.

          • george

            ‘not merely because it’s a horrible way to die’

            …which is no mere trivial thing, though some people evidently think it is.

      • george

        Exactamundo. Though it’s probably quicker. Some deaths are quicker and nicer than others. Why do you think the Nazis had suicide capsules? Better than being tortured to death over hours, weeks, months by the Soviets, yes?

    • Dougie

      You may struggle to see why using chemical weapons is different from using bombs but, rightly or wrongly, international law thinks otherwise (Geneva Protocol 1925). Assad crossed a line in bombing and shelling civilians a long time ago and the world did nothing (except for Iran, of course, which sent him more weapons and fighters). Thanks to international law, his use of chemical weapons provided another crossed line that the international community could have used to prompt action (not necessarily military).
      The inability of the UN to implement its resolutions led to the frustration that caused Bush to start the Iraq war. This time the UN isn’t even capable of achieving a resolution, frustrating Obama and leading to, as yet, unknown consequences. With the UN so ineffectual we are slipping back to a situation of every man for himself. China gets this, Putin gets this, Obama may get this, I think Cameron gets this but Baroness Ashton and the EU definitely don’t get this.
      As for Germany, it has no global influence beyond economic matters. It is a laughing stock in security circles for its refusal to let its soldiers leave their Afghanistan bases after dark. No-one has condemned Germany for its stance on Syria because its stance on Syria doesn’t matter to anyone. Now, of course, the UK’s influence may be heading the same way, P5 seat or not.

      • Christian

        Germany has no global influence but we do? Ha ha ha! Delusional

      • Augustus

        Of course our credibility as a nation is important, but it’s not enough to justify the UK’s intervention. It may be another matter for America which thinks it has a duty to enforce this international law (Geneva Protocol 1925) in its leading role, and thereby benefitting the entire world. America’s cause, one assumes, isn’t always credible for lesser nations. Although I tend to agree with your general hypothesis.

    • Trofim

      Syrian heads, torsos, limbs and giblets of men, women and children have been flying in all directions for two years or so now. Curiously, the media didn’t do many pictures of them. Tasteless, you see. But pictures of gassed people tug at the heart strings in a way that a liver or severed foot can’t do. Isn’t TV a marvellous thing.

  • Bert3000

    The armchair generals don’t get it, do they? There’s no need for us to have a policy, because it’s nothing to do with us and we should should mind our own business. It certainly isn’t worth the blood of a single member of our armed services or, indeed, the slightest dent on any of the expensive kit we’ve bought for those armed services.

    • stephen rothbart

      Yup, Bert3000, just as Czechoslovakia had nothing to do with us.

      Until it did.

      • DrCoxon

        And the title of Assad’s Mein Kampf is?

        • Wessex Man

          I’d hate to see the Yanks starting WW3 to impose their democracy on Syria.

      • Remittance Man

        Czechoslovakia was a sovereign nation invaded by a foreign power. Assad is fighting his own people.

        First rule of coppering – try to avoid getting called in to sort domestics.

        • stephen rothbart

          You are focusing on the wrong issue here.

          The US is not going for regime change in Syria. The time to have helped the Syrian opposition was 2 years ago. Obama thought like you and Miliband that if he did nothing the problem would go away.

          People thought the same about Czechoslovakia. But the problem just got worse.

          There is an international law against use of chemical weapons.

          Someone has to stand up to enforce the law. Otherwise there will be no consequences if any other crazy murderous leader to ise nuclear weapons or nerve gas on other target.

          Since the UN is an impotent body it needs some nations to uphold the law.

          Sadly that nation no longer includes Britain and while Obama is being dragged kicking and screaming to uphold his own promises at least something may be done to redress this murder of children, not as a result of collateral damage but by deliberate sick action.

          I am sorry that you can not see what is at stake here.

          Sadly it won’t be regime change and it will I am sure be totally inadequate. But better than nothing.

          • kevin sullivan

            There is no law against CW because the USA does not want one! After all, what country over the past 50 years holds the record in using them (agent orange etc.,) or supporting regimes that have used them!

  • Chris Kimberley

    The failure here lies with Cameron, his arrogance and haste to see us suck up to America left the door wide open for Miliband to oppose him, its obvious that Cameron and Hague were pushing for unilateral action, Riffkind’s speach was loaded with inaccuracies. The entire thing stank of dodgy dossiers and the Blair years it was impossible not to draw prallels
    Cameron also failed to satisfy 50+ condem rebels and ‘abstainers’ Ed had no influence over them and if Dave could keep his own house in order he wouldnt be in this position now.
    and Clegg !!?!?……..obviously didnt want to be there, why was it left to him to sum up? that was a schoolboy error. Speaking of which Gove needs to be taught that democracy doesnt spring from the party whips!

  • Malcolm McCandless

    Better Together? It appears not!

    For all the wrong reasons expressed by politicians at Westminster last night the people got the right result.

    The UK’s standing in the world now reflects the political reality – greatly diminished.

    • Wessex Man

      er, we’vew been greatly diminished since WW2, our dopey leaders just refused to accept it, times come to stop being the Yanks’ poddle!

  • Gary Paterson

    On one hand, I can see your point… what is our stance on Syria… but on the other I can ask that of most countries in the world. What is Australia, Germany, Brazil, or Japan doing about Syria? What’s happening in Syria is terrible but there are many issues happening around the world, we are still involved in a few of them, we can’t support them all.

  • Gary Paterson

    Don’t know what student unions your talking about, your comparison is crass, needless, and simply not based in the reality of the standard of work SUs do.

    • GUBU

      If it’s anything like the standard of punctuation or grammar you’ve just displayed, then you’ve made Mr Massie’s point for him…

      • Gary Paterson

        Well first off I only volunteer for a union, I’m not running it so I don’t know how that validates his point… second… his point wasn’t about grammar or punctuation, and I think its pretty arrogant to dismiss my views just because you don’t like the way I write or talk in casual conversation…

  • Mark Cooper

    Actually, bearing in mind that the facts here are so foggy, no policy sounds about right to me.

    • george

      Perhaps. But the inclination to abdication — shrugging — in a government is unwise and can be dangerous, especially when the issue is more weighty than how many high-viz jackets to order for the nation’s ladder inspectors.

  • allymax bruce

    “Neither motion authorised immediate military action. … And both were
    defeated. Work that out if you can. Parliament has voted to shut down debate …”
    Quite, Mr Massie; Westminster playing both ends!
    It doesn’t take a genius to realise Westminster weren’t wanting anything to do with this war in Syria; let’s look at the facts. Ten days ago, a chemical weapons attack was breached into Syrian civilian society; the blame was flying everywhere. The Regime, the Rebels, FSA, the radical elements within the FSA, even Israel were mentioned. Then, when no-one could figure out who actually launched the attack, five days later Israel declares it wants to part-function an Israel/US coalition led war on Syria, functionally, declaring war on Syria! Well, the Sauds, Turkey, the whole Middle East was now ‘in-play’; Russia getting itchy in their pants, may be leading to itchy fingers! China, and Russia, absolute about UN-led disarmament; what’s to be done; (This looks like a fight no-one wants to be part of)? I know, (says David Cameron), let’s put it to the British people; hence the ‘call-back’, and motions/votes. Glory-be, a ‘handy’ defeat for war! Looks very much like the people of the Middle East, will sort this out themselves. The British people can feel good this weekend; Miliband can ‘try’ and claim the moral high ground, (Janus!), but UK Prime Minister David Cameron gets exactly what is right for the UK; no, to another foreign war. David Cameron, from now, until the 2015 Westminster General Election, can crow about how he did the right thing; unlike ‘the Labour con’, in 2003! Cameron has won the high ground. Cameron now has all the crowing rights. David Cameron played a blinder! And the Middle East is ‘settled’ by those who live there. QED.

    • stephen rothbart

      “where do you go to my lovely, when you’re alone in your bed”

      Potty. Just sheer potty.

  • Claire

    “But at least we know what David Cameron believes.”

    Rubbish! Cameron wants regime change in Syria. He’s using the supposed chemical weapons attack as cover. Sustained missile strikes are designed to cripple the regime (shock and awe, anyone?) and make is easier for the “rebels” to take over.

    It’s surprising how often people in the media fall for the same old crap time after time. Are they really all that stupid? Or is there another reason?

    Here’s what Daniel Hannah said two days ago:

    “But I don’t think this is really about chemical weapons, at least not entirely, and I’ll tell you why. First, in common with several other politicians, I’ve been lobbied by FCO types in support of an intervention in Syria since long before the gas attack. Their justification has changed, but their goal hasn’t.”

    “Second, the singling out of poison gas is arbitrary. A hundred thousand people have been killed in Syria, some of them in ways every bit as horrible as the chemical attack. We were told yesterday that we had to defend a century-old embargo against the use of chemical weapons. Yet, at the same time, the PM said that one of the reasons he was sure that Assad, rather than the rebels, had carried out the attack in Damascus was that the regime had used poison gas on ten previous occasions. Well then, why did neither he nor anyone else call for retribution on those occasions? If this doctrine of retaliation was formulated between the tenth and eleventh violations by the same regime, it’s hardly a century-old prohibition.”

    • allymax bruce

      The geopolitics in the Middle East is changing, and thus, will significantly change the geography also. Like it or not, Israel are on the move. For me, I think it’s about time Israel came straight out, and tell everybody what their plans for that region are. There’s nothing any of us can do about it, but at least whatever happens there, it wouldn’t be a subversive con that pulls other countries into it too.

      • stephen rothbart

        Get a life.

        • Penny

          It will be one not worth living if he can’t obsess about Israel morning, noon and night. It’s what keeps him going.

      • Trofim

        “Israel are on the move”

        Are they? How many Israels are there? Will they be moving on caterillar tracks?

      • Moa

        Actually, it is the Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood and their offshoots (Al Qaeda, Hamas) fighting a Muslim Civil War against the Shia Iranians and their offshoots (Assad’s Alawis, Hezbollah).

        The Israelis are trying to stay out of things.

        Obama and the US backs the Muslim Brotherhood and offshoots (as they have in Libya, Egypt, Turkey, etc).

        Nothing to do with the Israelis, silly man.

      • george

        Israel IS. IS. IS. Israel IS a country. Get it?

        • kevin sullivan

          For the moment, …..yes!

          • george

            And long may it be that way (I hope).

  • FF42

    Actually, the two motions were far from identical. The Government motion argued that unilateral action was justified – the exact form to be authorised later. The Opposition amendment inserted several conditions that must be met before action would be allowed. Arguably, those conditions were impossible to meet.

    Parliament does indeed have a policy on Syria. It has the same policy on Syria that it has on North Korea, Yemen, Sudan, Iran and Egypt and some other places: not to intervene. It is the same policy that Britain had on Iraq before the Bush/Blair show took off. You may disagree with the policy but it is what Britain does most of the time.

    • allymax bruce

      FF42, you say, “The Government motion argued that unilateral action was justified – the exact form to be authorised later.”
      Nobody in their right mind is going to vote for that.

  • Boo80

    Ed Miliband was a disgrace. As Dan Hodges over in the Telegraph put it.

    “But these facts are indisputable. Ed Miliband said that if he was to
    back the Government, David Cameron would have to publish the legal
    advice upon which the case for war rested. David Cameron agreed, and did

    Ed Miliband then said a solid case needed to be presented
    demonstrating the Assad regime’s culpability for the chemical attacks.
    David Cameron agreed, and published the JIC analysis which concluded
    “there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility”.

    Ed Miliband then said the Government would have to exhaust the UN
    route before any recourse to military action. David Cameron agreed, and
    confirmed he would be submitting a motion to the P5 to that effect.

    Ed Miliband said he would need to await the UN weapons inspectors report. David Cameron agreed.

    Finally, and crucially, Ed Miliband said there would have to be not
    one, but two House of Commons votes before military action could be
    authorised. Once again David Cameron agreed.

    And then, having sought – and received – all these assurances from
    the Prime Minister, Ed Miliband went ahead and voted against the
    Government anyway.”

    It is either petty politicking on Foreign policy or flakyness in the face of a tough decisions.

    The labour leader is contemptible and not worthy of high office.

    • andyshelt

      Oh what a shame. The nasty man has taken your pointless and bloody war away from you. Well done, Miliband for refusing to get caught up in the rush to war and for refusing to fall for the same trick that Blair used years ago and that had such disastrous consequences for this country when Blair lied to the country to enable his support for cowboy Bush’s catastrophic war in Iraq.

      Rather than blame Miliband for doing what the opposition should do (i.e. oppose the Government of the day), why not blame Cameron’s utter incompetence at reading the level of support from his own side just so that he could “do a Blair” and strut his ego on the world stage with a US President.

      Syria is not a simple issue of “white hats” and “black hats” or do you seriously think that simply replacing the vile Assad with the corpse defiling/heart eating Syrian rebel commander will really usher in a new era of peace and democracy for the Syrian people.

      Sometimes the only sensible response is not to get involved in another country’s bloody civil war when the opposition is just as bad as the ruling party.

      • Dan Grover

        It didn’t oppose the government, though. That’s the thing. The two proposals said almost exactly the same thing. Neither got a majority, but between them they did. That’s the bizarre thing. You have a House that broadly agrees more debate needs to occur, and yet now none will. That’s not “opposition”, that is – as Alex said – choosing not to choose anything.

        • stephen rothbart

          Yes Dan, exactly. andyshelt clearly did not read Massie’s article, because he clearly missed the point of it.

        • Christian

          Both you and massie are incorrect, they did not receive a majority between them. The total no versus yes votes on both was 627 v 492. That’s 492 votes, not 492 MPs.

      • george

        I can certainly blame the Left and its leader (in this case) Miliband for undermining the better motives and policies of the West (not that I’m a fan of Cameron: but Wet is what Britain apparently wanted, so Wet is what it has got). The Left will be the downfall of Western Civ. and all that I hold beloved. Ever seen the movie of that name? Yeah: that will be Milibama in the bunker. The rest of us will have snuffed it long since.

  • Tom Miller

    It’s the Government’s job to come up with policy that will pass Parliament, not Parliament’s job to pass the Government’s policy.

    It should have come up with a better policy.

    The opposition one was put forward as a well balanced and logical amendment which did not rule out action but did commit to asking for good intelligence.

    Cameron should have backed it and painted himself as a consensus leader sure to win the subsequent vote. As it happens, he was too stupid.

  • mightymark

    Couldn’t have put this better myself – absolutely on the nail in virtually every respect.