To be fair to David Cameron, he’s not the only leader who’s performed a volte-face in the past 24 hours. If you’d listened to Ed Miliband yesterday afternoon, you might have been forgiven for thinking that he was quite likely to support the government’s motion on Syria, so long as it was and ‘legal’ and had specific and limited aims.
But he didn’t even bother waiting for the government to publish its motion before he announced his party would amend it, demanding that Parliament only vote on military intervention once the UN weapons inspectors had reported.
This wouldn’t have mattered so much had the Coalition been able to rely on rock-solid support from its own MPs. But that low-key whipping operation I reported on earlier managed to find enough discontent and fear about the consequences of military intervention among MPs that the Prime Minister was advised that between 50 and 60 MPs might rebel. Given the government’s working majority is 77, and given the difficulty of twisting the arms of MPs who are firstly not yet in Parliament and secondly more likely to want to vote with their consciences – even under a three line whip – it was clear that this could have led to a defeat. And that would have been unbearable for the Prime Minister. So he had to retreat.
Perhaps a delay in agreeing the UK’s involvement in the western response to the Syrian chemical weapons attack will prove a good thing: the Spectator’s leading article this week argues that this rush for war is one without a purpose. Here is an extract:
‘Normally, a recalled parliament is just an expensive therapy session for politicians who feel the world needs to know what they have to say. But this time the debate has served to tease out the complexities that were too easily brushed aside over Iraq. Adam Holloway, an ex-soldier, has said he would back military action if it had a purpose. But, he asks, what will this achieve? The Americans have all the missiles they need. The most effective way in which Britain can help is by giving support to Assad’s local enemies: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Our military options are very limited.
‘This is not apparent from the Prime Minister’s language. He talks as if he wishes actually to intervene; to stop the fighting. His more hawkish advisers describe Syria as a test case for non-intervention as if the 100,000 death toll was somehow a result of a British policy. The Prime Minister also uses similar language, introducing the concept of ‘standing idly by’. He has placed himself in a new but widely shared tradition which regards humanitarian intervention as lawful war, legitimised by a responsibility to protect. There was a time when Tony Blair wanted to make this British policy. If the Rwandan genocide were to happen again, he said, ‘we would have a moral duty to act there’.
‘These are noble aims. But the world is, alas, full of conflicts — with death tolls that exceed Syria’s. Tajikistan’s civil war killed 50,000, Algeria’s and Congo’s 150,000 and 300,000 have died in Darfur. But Britain did not intervene in any of them for a simple reason: we could not see how we could (or should) help. The same is, tragically, true for Syria today. Arming the rebels will guarantee further deaths. And a rebel victory could boost al-Qa’eda and simply usher in a new phase of war, with brutal sectarian reprisals.’
But in any case, this change of plan is about politics. Don’t forget that Ed Miliband’s own party has almost more to fear from supporting intervention outright and in a rush, given its ghosts. And it is significant that both sides are briefing about the politics of this vote: Labour pointing out that Cameron had a pretty quick change of heart on the wording of his motion (see here) after Labour’s amendment was announced, and Downing Street briefing that Ed Miliband’s own machine is in a mess. Actually, the real mess for Miliband will come when he has to decide whether to back the second vote approving UK involvement in an intervention. He may have caused panic in Downing Street tonight, but he will surely find himself feeling a little jittery if and when he has to explain to his party that he really does support intervention after all.Tags: Conservatives, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Syria, UK politics