The Consequences of Cameron’s Parliamentary Defeat on Syria

by John O’Sullivan

David Cameron’s parliamentary defeat on his government’s motion — and, in truth, his personal commitment — to take part in a U.S.-led punitive raid on Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its citizens is a catastrophe for the prime minister but only a moderate setback, if even that, for Britain. The catastrophe will take time to emerge to its full extent; the setback will dissolve quite quickly.

In constitutional terms what happened last night was not a big deal. The motion to support intervention in Syria was an advisory one which Cameron at once accepted. He did not even add a qualification along the lines of “if circumstances change.” Defeat on such a motion is not a resigning matter and does not require a vote of no confidence. Cameron is safe for the moment.

Nonetheless, his authority as prime minister, both domestically and internationally, has been seriously undermined. He has shown weaknesses unusual in a national political leader. As a party manager he ignored many of his own MPs and their concerns to the point where they hate and distrust him. Last night many returned the compliment by ignoring him and his interests. He is seen as oddly detached even from his own policies. Intervening in Syria, like his earlier intervention in Libya, was very much a personal initiative. He was urging President Obama to intervene rather than being dragged unwillingly towards intervention by the White House. Yet he had not taken the obvious preliminary step – or done the hard grind — of ensuring that his own parliamentary majority would support the policy. And though he gave an effective parliamentary performance in the debate, he never really explained how the proposed intervention would help the Syrian people or significantly change Syria’s political future.

Even a punitive raid should do more than punish. It should at least deter. Yet Cameron could not really demonstrate that this intervention would do more than demonstrate the West’s repugnance at the use of chemical weapons against children. We should hope that such repugnance is well-known anyway without our having to bomb to prove it. The whole affair seemed a last-minute, back-of-the-envelope, seat-of-the-pants, not-quite-serious affair. The government’s case was cut to pieces in the more adult debate in the House of Lords. And although the Commons defeat was a surprise when it happened, it quickly began to look inevitable: if not the punishment of hubris, then at least the restraint of folly.

But these blows to his reputation will not mean Cameron is going any time soon. In the short term the Tories will rally to him, as they are doing today, in order to keep the Coalition omnibus on the road. Economic prospects are improving; Tory divisions over Europe are being mollified by a bill to hold a referendum on U.K. membership in 2017; a Cameron “charm offensive” had seemed to be winning over Tory dissidents (until last night.) And Cameron’s medium-term survival in Downing Street is assisted still further by the fact that his two main rivals, Labour leader Ed Miliband and Deputy Prime Minister Clegg, performed far worse than he did. Clegg’s summing-up of the debate for the Coalition was a disaster. Where William Hague would probably have won it for Cameron with a strong rhetorical attack on Labour, Clegg made an even worst fist than Cameron at explaining how intervention would improve things. And he lost a higher percentage of his own Liberal Democrat party in the voting lobbies than Cameron lost of Tories.

Miliband, on the other hand, is accused of something much worse. As Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges (a Blairite critic of the current Labour leadership) lays out in some detail Miliband agreed to support the government if Cameron jumped through a series of hoops (waiting for the UN inspectors, publishing the intelligence case, etc., etc.) to demonstrate its bona fides. Cameron duly leapt through every hoop. At which point Miliband decided not to support the government. He either behaved duplicitously, or, more likely, he dithered endlessly and couldn’t make up his mind — which is a more serious matter in a political leader. Hodges has resigned from the Labour party over what he believes to be a feckless betrayal.

Yet the fact is that leaders of the opposition don’t lose by defeating a government and bringing a prime minister low. That’s in their job description. And they certainly don’t lose when their eventual position (however arrived at) is supported by more than two-thirds of the voters. Miliband’s stock will now rise, and his electoral prospects will be taken more seriously by all sides.

So David Cameron, having shown himself to be a bad party manager, a reckless strategist, and an oddly detached political personality, almost an observer at his own execution, now faces a far more serious challenge from the opposition. There used to be a misdemeanor in British law called “being without visible means of support.” Today, David Cameron could be plausibly accused of it. He gets a well-deserved pasting from conservative journalists such as Iain Martin and Fraser Nelson.

What makes his position still more perilous is that he can no longer speak with authority for Britain in foreign affairs. Unless he can find a fairly dramatic way of reversing his defeat (probably on an unrelated issue), that weakness, added to domestic discontents, may produce a slowly gathering momentum for his resignation. The bookies’ odds on his not leading the Tories at the next election have shortened from 5-1 to 3-1. That still looks like a good bet for Cameroons, but it’s worse odds than Margaret Thatcher could have got a month before she was defenestrated.

Whatever happens to Cameron, the gloomy jeremiads from the Cameroons and other supporters of intervention in today’s media – “end of the special relationship,” “new Iraq syndrome,” and “finally it’s the end of empire” — look thoroughly overdone. Chancellor George Osborne’s argument, for instance, that the defeat of the motion was a decision by Britain to turn its back on the world is transparently absurd. Nor was yesterday’s decision comparable to the trauma that was Suez, and it is unlikely to leave deep political wounds either within British politics or between London and Washington. This dispute was one in which each side understood the reasons of the other. Opponents of intervention understood the desire of its supporters to uphold the international prohibition on chemical weapons; supporters understood the objection that a raid might not actually succeed in achieving its objective. On both sides there were people who reached their final judgment on a narrow balance of advantage between unsatisfactory choices. Ultimately it was political cock-up. Suez was an extraordinarily bitter dispute between Washington and London in which Eden lied to Eisenhower who retaliated by threatening to bring down the British currency and destroy the economy. Even then the special relationship was restored within the year by Macmillan’s succeeding Eden.

And there is an unnoticed advantage in yesterday’s decision. Britain has been slowly drifting towards an unconscious isolationism since Blair took the British into Iraq. He did so on what everyone now believes to be a false prospectus. That argument is exaggerated — but it is the case that Blair defended the Iraq War as being something the Brits should do for the international community and for the U.S. He failed to justify the war in terms of British interests and values. Accordingly, when the venture failed (or at least has yet to succeed), British public opinion swung against both intervention and a “special relationship” that seemed to involve them in wars waged on behalf of either misty international principles or an ally larger and richer than themselves. That is the new Iraq syndrome, and it has gradually seeped into British opinion without anyone realizing what it might mean and with no one really subjecting this drift to intelligent criticism.

That changed this morning. Many people on both sides of the debate suddenly realized they may not want a world in which the U.K. opts out of the big decisions and leaves them to Washington and coalitions of the willing from which they are excluded. Thinking on foreign policy has shifted from this particular case (Syria) to the general situation (what should be the U.K.’s international role?). And a prudent willingness to intervene for achievable objects is a more likely outcome of that debate than either gung-ho multilateral interventionism or the isolationism into which many British politicians, including Tories, were drifting thoughtlessly. Next time an international crisis crops up, any such decision will take place against a more considered background.

And that is a more important result of yesterday than whether Cameron is around to take the decision or he has been replaced by some budding new Macmillan.