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Blogs

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.

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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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