There’s still a majority in the Commons for intervention – if Cameron and Miliband work together

30th August, 2013 7:00 am

The impact of last night’s Government defeat in the Commons will reverberate for weeks. Not just in Britain, but in Washington, and Paris – and Damascus.

Those who argue that talking about the impact of last night’s vote in terms of Cameron is wrong are missing the significance of what has transpired – a Prime Minister has lost the support of the house on war and peace. That simply doesn’t happen. Cameron faces his toughest few days as leader, stymied by his own backbenchers and under fire from a press who had begun to talk him up again.

Of course what happens now to the Syrian people is most important, but it’s churlish to claim that our PM losing his 80+ working majority isn’t worth noting. Clearly Cameron realised the significance of the vote – throwing in the towel on UK intervention on Syria, period. That won’t have been done lightly, especially after he’s spent days making the case for it. He told assembled MPs that “I believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons…The British people do not want to see military action. I get that”.

Yet a crucial point has been largely overlooked, not least by Cameron, who may not actually “get it” at all. There is still a clear Parliamentary majority for intervention, if the evidence is there and Miliband and Cameron can work together to deliver it.

After all, both men clearly felt that intervention was necessary – the differences between them were those of scale, timeframe and – crucially – evidence. If Cameron had taken Labour’s threat to push its own amendment (or nothing) seriously – when coupled with the palpable discontent on his own backbenches – he might have taken Miliband’s demands for evidence before action more seriously and accommodated Labour’s demands. That would have left the door open for a second vote next week, by which time (after reviewing the evidence available) Miliband and Labour might have been compelled to support the government.

Similarly, I’m not entirely convinced that Labour was really aiming to sink a government motion that whilst imperfect, was not the “shoot now ask questions later” plan that had been briefed only a few days ago. Only 24 hours ago this was being reluctantly referred to as a concession to Labour by some Tory MPs. Now it’s a motion that Labour have helped defeat. How did we end up here? We were potentially a few mature conversations from compromise and a few days (with sufficient evidence and a vote in the Commons) from military action. Now Cameron says that UK involvement in intervention is off the table.

More importantly, where do we go from here?

Britain’s response to the Syria crisis is now effectively in Ed Miliband’s hands. That’s an incredibly unusual – unprecedented – position for an opposition leader. Undoubtedly it’s daunting, but he’ll have to get used to it now. This is the big leagues, the decisions are tough, but Miliband has a chance to prove his mettle as a Prime Minister and a statesman.

So what should Ed do?

First and foremost – stick to your guns, asses the evidence. If there is sufficient cause to believe the Syrian regime is using chemical weapons on civilians (which I believe there will be) and there’s a credible plan of action – then Labour must act, work with the Prime Minister and vote to launch a military strike on the Assad regime. That’s the logic of what Ed Miliband has been saying all week, and it shouldn’t change just because the government lost a vote in the Commons.

That will require bravery – and political maturity – from both Miliband and Cameron. It might prove unpopular on both the government and opposition benches, provoking rebellions on both sides. It might lock two rivals together, uncomfortably, to a difficult overseas campaign. It might cost them both dear.

But if they both believe that action must be taken, and they believe that the military approach is right, it would be wrong of them both to sit on their hands because of a hasty response to an unusual parliamentary vote. Neither government nor opposition were against intervention at all costs. To be so now seems somewhat perverse.

But that man who can now change that is not the humiliated Prime Minister, it’s the under-rated leader of the opposition. The impetus must come from him. A big response is needed.

It’s in your hands now Ed. Whatever you do – tread carefully. The world is watching. And for once that’s not hyperbole, it’s just a statement of fact. Get used to it.

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  • Earlshill

    I hope there isn’t a majority still in the Commons for intervention Mark. There certainly isn’t any such majority in the country, and Ed – and Cameron – would do well to listen to the electorate for a change.

  • You seem to have missed something, which Cameron understood straight away. Parliament has expressed it’s opposition to bombing Syria ( and in doing so reflected the overwhelming view of the British people) It cannot now go ahead. It’s called democracy.

    • S&A

      And what happened in Damascus last week is called a ‘crime against humanity’.
      Not that you or any of your colleagues give a damn.

  • David Battley

    Interestingly on R4 this morning the story immediately following the report of the vote was about BBC uncovering evidence of napalm being dropped by a Syrian jet fighter onto a school earlier this week.

    Those who used this vote as an opportunity to play politics should examine their consciences carefully.

  • Daniel Speight

    It’s a bit of a nonsense post Mark, not something I usually associate with you. We will not know if a majority of MPs will vote for the bombing of Syria unless it is taken to a vote. You could demand that Cameron calls a vote on that next week. Myself, I would rather this sleeping dog is allowed to lie.

    • henrytinsley

      And unless Cameron is indeed lying, he’s made clear that Britain will not participate in an attack on Syria. Thank goodness for that: the arguments in favour were thin, and no-one seemed to have thought through the likely consequences. Quite why Obama is keen on this is a complete mystery, not least as under 10% of Americans are in favour.

      • rwendland

        Perhaps Cameron knew the attack was planned for this week-end, and that was central in his mind when he said we would not participate. Votes next week may not matter for the immediate issue – the reason parliament was recalled early.

  • Let’s hope that Cameron and Miliband, along with the UN, do work hard for intervention – in the form of a ceasefire.

    Until the recent thrust for a military strike by the UK was brought to an end yesterday the main focus for intervention had been wanting to supply arms to the rebels. And magnificently Parliament provided a reality-check. We should all be very grateful. And ordinary people, particularly in the USA, will be heartened by yesterday’s result.

    As Sarah Wollaston said: If there is to be humanitarian intervention it shouldn’t take the form of a cruise missile.

    • Mike Homfray

      And to get a ceasefire the Russians matter a lot more than the Americans

  • eastender

    What planet are you on? David Cameron has suffered a massive defeat brought about by his own arrogance, he recalled parliament to authorise military action and he lost. The numbers would have been far worse if all mps had been at Westminster and if the motion had been about specifically authorising military action. Yes you are right that the irony is that if No10 had not tried to be so pig headed it could have easily negotiated a motion that would have got ED M’s approval but it miscalculated and it didnt. The thought that a deeply wounded PM would now try to take on his own party (many, if not most of whom do not support any military action) – not to mention Nick Clegg clear weakness as leader of the LDs, on the basis that he might get support from the leader of the opposition (especially when No10 has been stupidly insulting Ed) is complete pie in the sky thinking. The issue is also now one of confidence, the PM simply cannot risk loosing another vote, he would be out. For those that might support such action the only way forward would be with a new PM.

  • whs1954

    “There is still a clear Parliamentary majority for intervention, if the evidence is there and Miliband and Cameron can work together to deliver it.”
    Ed Miliband doesn’t want to work with David Cameron, otherwise he would’ve reacted to the Government watering down its original motion. What Miliband wants is to trip up the Government and make Cameron, who he hates for being a Tory, look weak. He thinks petty schoolboy politics and his puerile Tory-hatred is more important than Syrians being gassed.

  • thewash

    Where in this article is there a reference to the 2-1 majority in the country opposed to military intervention? Are you suggesting that Ed Miliband , as well as Cameron should ignore public opinion on this matter?

  • JoeDM

    The only ones to benefit from western intervention will be the islamist extremists.

  • JC

    It certainly looks to me that there is no further chance of UK intervention in Syria. Milliband has managed to stop us going to war in the Middle East, and I agree with him. However, I believe that his approach is one of political posturing rather than a principled opinion that it it not right. It’s all well and good putting one over the Tories, but it’s a long way back if he wants some form of intervention.

  • dansmith17

    Sorry but this is nonsense, it is simply not going to make a blind bit of difference whether Britain takes part or not. If the US sends hunderds of Cruise Missiles at Syria and we join in by sending 5-6 with a Union Jack on them it would not make a significant difference if those 5-6 happened or not.

    Invading and preventing the civil war is long beyond our capabilities and the US was not planning an operation on anything scale. It was planned to be a minor operation to make some politicians feel better, something must be done and this was something.

    Obama may act over the weekend, but realistically he is not going to act while sitting down with Putin in St Petersburg so if nothing has happened by Monday it is off for at least a week.

  • Chris Priest

    On the principle, I agree with Mark. If it can be shown that Assad is using chemical weapons against his own people, then action should be taken. If Ed goes ahead as Mark proposes, then I will back him.

    But Tuesday’s poll suggests that many Labour members, perhaps a majority, would not. This is where the politics becomes problematic. I think Tory MPs voted against the government motion because their constituents were telling them that they didn’t want Britain to be involved, under any circumstances. That would be what Cameron gets.

  • Jonathan Roberts

    Whatever one’s views on the result, or the issues in play, the sight of Labour MPs cheering and jeering as the vote was announced was just too much – never mind Tom Watson tweeting ‘haha’ at the news Conservative Ministers were angry at the result.

    Whatever the case for military action, this isn’t about party politics, it’s about innocent people who are dying by having their insides burnt out. These are people who can’t defend themselves, Labour is meant to be the party that cares for them. The cheering and jeering Labour MPs, and many people on Twitter, were enjoying last night a little too much whilst any normal human being would have looked on quietly, respectfully and with dignity – ignoring political implications and working hard to find alternatives to help those who are suffering.

    It was a bad night for the Conservatives, but it was a bad night for Labour’s claims to be the ‘nice’ ones.

    • JoeDM

      Labour MPs cheering and jeering in the Commons ath same time as the BBC was showing video of a napalm attack by Assad’s air force on a school !!!!

      • BillFrancisOConnor

        The use of both napalm and chemical weapons against civilians is of course completely unacceptable. However, of course Assad is not alone in using napalm and chemical weapons against civilians in the post Nazi era. On a historical point the US repeatedly used napalm and the chemical ‘Agent Orange’ against civilians including of course children in its war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. I could be mistaken but I don’t remember Parliament calling for a military strike against the US at the time.
        IMHO a military strike against Syria doesn’t look like it is going to help or improve the situation there.

    • reformist lickspittle

      And the way no10 officials traduced Miliband in the run-up to the vote??

      Have you had anything to say about that? If not, why not??

    • “it’s about innocent people who are dying by having their insides burnt out.”

      Then surely the obvious approach is to work for a ceasefire?

  • Ben H

    I am deeply ashamed to be a member of the Labour Party today. Miliband has put partisan advantage ahead of the national interest. That so many Labour MPs are delighted by this is frankly sickening. Miliband’s actions show that he is not a statesman but an opportunist and I worry about what his record as PM would be like. Whatever you say about Cameron, he tried to do what he genuinely thought was right on this. I think my 17 years in the party might be coming to an end quite shortly.

  • markfergusonuk

    I’m saying that if it’s proven that Assad used chemical weapons on civilians, then – yes – military action should be taken. Leaders lead.

    • There’s very little trust accorded to politicians as it is. If Cameron and Miliband ignore public opinion on this and lead the UK into war then our democratic system will be brought into disastrous disrepute.

      Spinoza pointed out that even monarchs can only rule with the consent of their subjects – that’s something worth considering at this moment.

    • Mike Homfray

      Don’t agree. I don’t think it would be effective. In those circumstances the Russians would be key in order to broker a ceasefire

    • BillFrancisOConnor

      Question is though will military action help? If so, how?

  • markfergusonuk

    I’m afraid Diane that you and I have a different reading of what happened in the Commons yesterday. If the Tories had backed the Labour motion, then military action would still be on the cards – if, and only if, the evidence was compelling.

    • eastender

      Mark, you seem to be looking at all this through the prism of the BBC & British media. You are correct in that if David Cameron had not been so pig headed and arrogant a motion could have probably been agreed that could have garnered sufficient support from the Labour benches to have been carried (ironically it would have been Ed facing problems today, working out how he could keep the PLP united behind him). However it is also clear, as Diane has stated she was there after all, that it was unlikely that sufficient support existed across the house for any proposition that would have authorised military action. We can debate what is the right thing to do but the reality is that will not include any military action from the UK in Syria for the foreseeable future. An outcome (however regrettable that might seem) supported by a majority of the public and their elected representatives.

    • David Battley

      You aren’t the only one… Hansard appears to record something quite different. Perhaps a motion can be made for it record “subtext” on the next roll…

  • I was in Parliament all day. You were not. Most labour people who voted for the Labour amendment did NOT see it as an principle agreement to bombing Syria. And they would not vote for such a proposition. Equally, many Tories who supported Cameron in the lobby, were clear they would not vote for bombing. The 30 Tories who voted against Cameron last night actually understate the level of Tory unhappiness with bombing Syria. With a genuine free vote, you would be lucky to scrape a majority for bombing. You cannot take the country to war on that basis. And for Ed and Cameron to put their heads together to thwart the will of the House of Commons, would bring politics into disrepute. If anything it would harden opposition to the bombing.

    • Daniel Speight

      Well said Diane.

  • Rob Marchant

    I think that it is quite clear that Cameron will not remotely consider the possibility of working with Miliband on this, after yesterday. The reality is that he does not trust Miliband.

    And by now (I realise the piece was written this morning) Miliband has also made it clear that he in no way wants to pursue military intervention from hereon in.

  • markfergusonuk

    I find it hard to believe that the leaders of the three largest parties cannot between them cobbled together a majority for intervention, if they all believe it is necessary and the evidence exists, regardless of what MPs who are against intervention at all costs might argue.

    • crosland

      Could you clarify what you mean by ‘intervention’ do you military only ?

    • They can do something but I think you’re being a bit kind to Miliband – he’s a ditherer and couldn’t make up his mind. I’ve resisted the urge to join in with the likes of Dan Hodges as I thought he was a decent and serious politician and unlike Mr Hodges I think you should have some sort of loyalty to the party leader. But his shortcomings are too many and I no longer think he is even a grown up politician. He is just like Gordon Brown without the chip on his shoulder.

  • Stephen Bell

    Mark – can you explain why sarin gas qualifies as a chemical weapon but white phosphurus and depleted uranium do not? Can you explain what gives the British state the right to kill Syrian people, with or without a UN mandate? Does the Syrian state have the right to bomb Britain after the slaughter we inflicted upon the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, etc? Should we be planning to bomb Egypt after the military dictatorship murdered unarmed members of the most popular political party in that country?
    You seriously under-estimate the significance of this vote. This was not a procedural error by the Tories. This was an expression of the growing distaste amongst the British population for wars of aggression against poor, developing countries waged by those nostalgic for empire.
    Labour needs a new direction in foreign policy. The anti-war feeling in society at large is a key factor in stimulating that. It is a pity you are not listening

  • crosland

    And why would they have to do that ? If the inference is any atrocity from now on is down to those MP’s you need to question where people have been for the last 12 months when over 100,000 have been killed surely ?

    • David Battley

      Ah yes, because since we haven’t already fixed the problem is an excellent reason to continue to ignore the problem.

      • crosland

        No, it’s just that knocking off a few bits of military infrastructure from above or off shore isn’t going to stop Assad – only boots on the ground is doing that and I think you should be phoning the Saudi’s to ask them why they aren’t doing their own dirty work, instead of assuming it’s a UK responsibility.
        Do you really think it will stop at lobbing a few missiles or bombs at the regime ? Meanwhile, who is actually fueling the war from the outside on both sides ?

        • David Battley

          Since you are clearly an experienced military strategist with deep and insightful knowledge of the local geopolitical situation, there is clearly no point in seeking to disagree with your conclusions.

          You do know that wasn’t what the motion yesterday was about though, don’t you?

          • crosland

            Very amusing but wrong.

          • David Battley

            Indeed: if I’m honest I suspected you weren’t a military strategist.

            However to clarify, can you confirm that you are aware that the motion was:
            “This house… [notes] that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken, and notes that before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place”

            Nothing to do with launching an invasion of Syria then, as you appear to be suggesting.

          • crosland

            I was merely pointing out that in addition to that worn phrase ‘mission creep’ that the only real way to resolve the mess is going to be on the ground not flying overhead dropping weapons or firing cruise missiles from ships or subs.
            Your original posting was suggesting that atrocities would continue because MP’s didn’t back either a government motion or Labour’s amendment, which was pretty childish.

            It also appeared to infer it is the UK’s responsibility to resolve the matter and not some of the other nations in that region who are fuelling the killings, 99% of which are not CW related.

            As to the resolution the government tabled, I had the original motion and the one which you have selected certain para’s from, so of course I have seen it.
            Limited air strikes are still probably likely to take place by the US so in a couple of weeks we will see what impact they have had won’t we ?

          • David Battley

            Such inference from so few words.

  • crosland

    And when shelling and bombing was going on to kill over 100,000 what was everyone doing ?

  • crosland

    So you think the govt motion was ok ? I read the briefing to MP’s and if this was some conspiracy to just get at the tories I might agree, but it patently wasn’t.

  • crosland

    Spare us the crocodile tears for the Syrian people. All Miliband did was set out a much better route that Cameron wasn’t going to support.

  • Mike Homfray

    Nothing Ed said today suggests he was enthusiastic for intervention, and I think in saying so, he is both reflecting public and party opinion

  • Mike Homfray

    If thats your view, fine. I left when we invaded Iraq as America’s poodle. We can’t all be happy with what the party decides. If it takes a direction we cannot accept then it is right to depart


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