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.