Today’s Foreign Office Questions was a far classier affair than yesterday’s rather snippy session with Philip Hammond on Defence. William Hague chose not to tell Labour that they had no authority when talking about Syria, instead choosing to focus on the humanitarian situation that Britain can still do something about. His first answer was as follows:
‘The United Nations has announced that there are now 2 million Syrian refugees in the region. The United Kingdom is already the second largest donor, supporting more than 900,000 Syrians, and we will do more. The president of the Syrian National Coalition will visit London on Thursday, when we will discuss further support to save lives, promote political dialogue in Syria, and advance the holding of a second Geneva conference. We support a strong international response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, while of course fully respecting the views of the House.’
He was answering a question from Tory Sarah Newton, who told him that ‘I do not believe that the people of Britain want the people of Syria to feel that they have been abandoned in their hour of need’ and asked for reassurance that the Foreign Secretary would continue to work with partners on alleviating the suffering. He also told the Commons that while the agenda of the G20 is set by Russia and will focus on ‘a wide range of trading and economic issues’, Syria would still ‘dominate the bilateral meetings during the G20′. Labour is making a theatrical fuss about this now, with Douglas Alexander saying it’s ‘disappointing’ that Hague has accepted that Syria isn’t on the formal agenda, and that the ‘UK must request that the Syrian crisis is top of the agenda, not just discussed on the margins of the meeting’.
But he was also pressed (again) on whether there could be a second vote. And (again) the Foreign Secretary gave the impression that he was playing the Yes/No Interlude on ‘Take Your Pick!’ by trying as hard as he could not to say yes or no. Asked by Julian Lewis to confirm that MPs could rely on the Prime Minister’s pledge on Thursday to listen to Parliament, the Foreign Secretary said:
‘I can confirm what we have all said, including the Prime Minister. The House has made its decision, and we respect that decision. As other ministers have said, including the Defence Secretary yesterday, we are not planning to return to the same vote or the same debate again.’
Ben Bradshaw then intervened, asking again why David Cameron had ruled action out completely, when Miliband had simply ‘asked the Prime Minister for an assurance that Britain would not take action without the Government returning to the House for another vote’. Hague replied:
‘The right honourable gentleman may recall that the vote was on whether to have a further vote. The proposition that the Government put to the House was to have a second vote if military action was to be contemplated. That motion was defeated – Opposition members voted against having a second vote. That was the decision of the House.’
Bradshaw seemed most unhappy with this, shaking his head when Hague said that Labour MPs ‘voted against having a second vote’. Clearly this Labour MP’s reading of the motion was rather different. Certainly the Labour leadership were surprised by Cameron’s response to the vote, even if it gave them the opportunity to frame Miliband as the man who stopped a rush to war (expect to hear this line repeated over the coming weeks, as it feeds into the David vs Goliath narrative about the Labour leader standing up to the big guys on issues like phone hacking).
The Prime Minister also told Cabinet this morning that he had no plans for a second vote. Which leaves us in the same position as yesterday, with the ball in Ed Miliband’s court.
Miliband has no plans to push for a second vote, either, even though the right of his party clearly want the opportunity of one if circumstances do change. One of the major blocks to this happening, as I explained yesterday, is that Miliband would have to set out his position on intervention when a sizeable rump of his party clearly doesn’t support it.
But there is one way that the Labour party could manage a second vote on Syria without confronting this issue and while causing maximum trouble for David Cameron, if it really wanted to. It could support a second vote after new facts emerged, but announce that for Labour MPs at least, this would be a free vote (although Diane Abbott might be disappointed that she wouldn’t have another opportunity to try to resign from the frontbench). Even if the Tory party refused to give its own MPs a free vote (and there would be a clamour for one), the response from the backbenches would make it look like a free vote (as indeed did last week’s vote, so poor was the whipping operation), and the government could be defeated without Labour actively opposing the motion. Which would likely be curtains for the Prime Minister. But Labour isn’t considering a return to Parliament, even if some MPs like Ben Bradshaw would like one.
David Cameron would therefore need the assurance not just of Miliband’s support for the motion, but of a three-line whip for his party. Which is why the vote won’t happen. In their talks about last week’s vote, I’m told that the Prime Minister made an impassioned and serious case for intervention, arguing at such length that he started to make a further point to the Labour leader about why he disagreed with him, before admitting he’d forgotten what he was going to say and that he couldn’t find the bit of paper he’d written the argument down on. Miliband knows those arguments now, but even if he did change his mind about a vote – and his team are adamant that he won’t – he would have to confront his own party on intervention before the PM would even consider pushing for another one. Which just shows that the Syria issue has reached stalemate on this side of the Atlantic. Bar some low-level grumbling from backbenchers on both sides, all the political action is now in America.Tags: Foreign Office, Labour, Syria, UK politics, William Hague