Rue Britannia

How David Cameron got royally screwed by Ed Miliband over the Syrian intervention both men wanted.


LONDON — A cock-up wrapped in a muddle inside a shambles. That’s as good an explanation as any for the extraordinary scenes in the House of Commons Thursday, Aug. 29, as parliamentarians defied Prime Minister David Cameron and voted to ensure British troops will play no part in any military action in Syria.

A chastened — and angry — Cameron acknowledged that "the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action — I get that." Not since the Suez crisis has a British prime minister been so humiliated on a question of foreign policy. "You’re a disgrace; you’re a disgrace," Michael Gove, the education secretary and a foreign-policy hawk, screamed at rebel Tory MPs after the result was announced.

The MPs voted 285-272 to defeat a government motion that would have inched Britain toward intervening in Syria. The result may be bad for Syria’s desperate civilians, but it is a calamity for Cameron’s domestic authority and international credibility — and the vote itself was a product of confusion, duplicity, and incompetence.

There are no winners and many losers in London today. Neither Cameron nor Labour Party leader Ed Miliband emerge from this fiasco with their reputations enhanced. Neither man wished to rule out military action, but that is exactly what they have done.

This was, in any case, less a debate about Syria than one about Iraq. The ghosts of Operation Iraqi Freedom were ever present at Westminster on Thursday. A decade ago, the British Army went to war on the back of inadequate and, as events would prove, misleading evidence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program. The wounds caused by that misadventure have not yet healed. The breakdown in trust between Parliament and the intelligence services, and between Parliament and the public, has weakened British enthusiasm for liberal interventions of any sort.

Syria, of course, is not Iraq, and a limited airstrike on Bashar al-Assad’s regime is hardly the same as invading and occupying Mesopotamia. But, as Rory Stewart, Conservative Party MP for Penrith and the Border and a former governor of an Iraqi province, said in a statement, "Britain has learned the lessons of Iraq, but it’s in danger of over learning them."

Tory MPs complained that "the well had been poisoned" by the Iraqi trauma. But amid such public and parliamentary ambivalence about the aims and viability of intervention in Syria, government ministers overplayed their hand. Accusing their opponents of giving "succor" to Assad’s regime was foolish and counterproductive in equal measure.

Cameron certainly misjudged the mood of the country and his party. His relations with his own backbenchers have long been tepid. Too often they feel taken for granted, and faced with the prospect of helping to authorize unpopular action against Assad’s regime, 30 backbenchers rebelled. The revolt was small compared with those endured by Tony Blair on Iraq, but coupled with defections from Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners, it was enough to lose the day.

The difference with Iraq, however, was that then the Tories — in opposition — supported the government. This week, by contrast, Miliband placed domestic political advantage ahead of his own personal preferences as he led Labour to vote against Cameron.

Labour did not oppose the government or Syrian intervention on principle but, instead, chose to do so because it was politically convenient and opportunistic to do so. Thus Labour voted against a government motion that was substantively the same as the amendment it itself had offered. And because the motions advanced by the government and the opposition were each defeated, Britain is now left without a foreign policy at all. "I’m not with those who rule out action," Miliband said Thursday. Yet his party has managed to rule out action anyway.

As evidence leaked out of Syria that hundreds of civilians had perished in an apparent chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, Cameron chose to recall Parliament to debate Britain’s part in any putative international response to the latest atrocities in Syria.

With the government preparing to support an American-led intervention, Miliband sought a number of assurances from Cameron. First, the government should publish the legal advice justifying military action. Second, the government should reveal the intelligence assessments making it clear Assad’s regime, and not the rebels, was responsible for the chemical attacks. Third, Cameron should make it clear that Britain would continue — however hopelessly — to try to secure United Nations authorization for a military strike. Fourth, Parliament would need to vote again, once these conditions had been met, before British troops could be part of any international response.

Cameron, albeit with some reluctance, agreed to each of these conditions. The motion the government put down did not commit Britain to war. Indeed, it did not do very much more than advocate a wait-and-see-but-rule-nothing-out approach. Having been given the reassurances he sought, Miliband then voted against a motion containing all those reassurances.

The message is now, sadly, clear. If other countries think Assad has crossed a red line and feel the need to act, then they may do so. But Britain will not join the party. In doing so, Miliband said, Britain would stand up to the United States — a cheap piece of populism that should have been beneath the Labour leader. Notably, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a forceful and passionate readout on Friday of the evidence against Assad’s use of chemical weapons, did not mention Britain by name among the international allies that will stand at America’s side.

"This vote sends out a message to the world that Britain has learned the lessons of its past," Miliband triumphantly told Sky News yesterday. And how! There are many good and convincing arguments against intervention in Syria, but being spooked by Iraq is not one of them.

Britain’s remaining liberal interventionists are appalled. "In 50 years of serving my country I’ve never felt more depressed or more ashamed. Why do we need armed forces any longer? We’ve taken a decision now to opt out," said Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader and U.N. representative in Bosnia.

The stunning nature of Cameron’s reverse is still sinking in. Britain is not, despite some hysterical claims, suddenly an "isolationist" country (after all, it intervened in Libya), but there is a sense too that it is not quite the leading country it once was. Good riddance to all that, some say, but the failing to even have a proper vote on whether to use force to reprimand Assad is still disquieting.

There are good reasons for thinking that any Western response to Assad’s brutality is likely to prove ineffective. It’s a slap, not a punch — much less a decapitation. Nevertheless, even critics who question the usefulness of intervention should pause to consider what kind of message is sent if the international community does not respond to the murderous use of chemical weapons. A line will have been crossed from which it may prove difficult to return.

As for Cameron, his reputation and his ability to command confidence have taken a fearful battering. His leadership position is not threatened by Thursday’s reverse, but his standing is dented nonetheless. He is far from the only loser, however. Miliband won a victory this week, but it is one that comes at a heavy price too. His own credibility has not been boosted either. And nor, despite Thursday night’s drama, has that of Parliament either.

Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.