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Friday, August 30, 2013 

What the Syria vote does and doesn't signify.

Amid all the attempts to try and explain exactly what last night's government defeat on Syria means, there are two fairly fundamental reasons for why they lost, neither of which has much to do with Cameron's standing with his party or Miliband's change of tack 48 hours ago.

First, the government completely failed to make the case for intervention.  The evidence was inconclusive, the legal advice an utter joke, and no one advocating joining the US in striking Syria even began to explain how launching hundreds of cruise missiles at "military" targets was meant to either stop chemical weapons being used again, or improve the humanitarian situation in the country.

Second, the rush to make a decision to meet an arbitrary timetable was a huge mistake.  In the course of a week the government tried to bump the country into another military adventure without explaining why immediate action was so important, or couldn't be delayed until after the UN inspectors had delivered their report.  They wouldn't have apportioned blame, but it would have established beyond any doubt that chemical weapons had been used.  If there was any true echo of Iraq, it was in trying to force matters when waiting slightly longer may well have turned up the cliched "smoking gun".  The arguments a decade ago were so rehearsed that it became more and more difficult to say something new that could change minds; in this instance plenty of people had yet to come to a proper reasoned decision, and so erred on the side of caution.

Only then should we come to how party politics had an impact.  Looking down the list of Tory MPs who voted against the prime minister, there are some who are seasoned veterans of trooping through the no lobby, but fewer than you might imagine.  Cameron and the whips ought to have known from the numbers who were opposed to arming the rebels and were demanding a vote then that there was more than the potential for trouble and they seem to have ignored it, imagining that they would back the prime minister when his authority was on the line.  They also seem to have dismissed the level of press opposition, as well as the few opinion polls conducted that suggested little appetite for another conflict.  Whether you put this down to the Tories being on a high after signs of economic recovery and Labour's troubles during the recess or just ignoring what ought to have staring them in the face, for a party meant to be in tune with public opinion via Lynton Crosby, this is a remarkable failure.

Those on the coalition frontbench really ought to be looking at themselves then before lashing out at everyone else for their supposed perfidy.  It comes to something when it's Jack Straw acting as the voice of (almost) reason, pointing out that this wasn't about the country become isolationist, rather it was the abject failure of the case made by the government.  If it hadn't been in such a mad rush, another week might well have sufficed and the result could have been different. Nor did it help when even before the vote had taken place, words being put in people's mouths or not, Philip Hammond was agreeing that Labour's amendment gave succour to Assad, while others were yet again bringing the "national interest" and "national security" into play.  If the no vote really was as significant as some are making out, I and many others would be delighted. Having blindly followed the US into two disastrous wars of choice, as well as persuaded a hesitant Obama into intervening in Libya, making clear that we will no longer act as backup without exhausting all other options first would be a extremely welcome development.

Nor is this quite the triumph for Ed Miliband that some are trying to portray it as.  As others have detected, this wasn't so much educated, strong leadership as it was a whole lot of luck and Cameron/Clegg snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  Miliband didn't know what he wanted and his confused speech yesterday said as much; he was playing for time, hoping that doing so would stop a significant number of his own backbenchers from rebelling.  The disaster for Cameron is that if he and his whips had read the situation properly, they could have swallowed their pride and gone with the Labour amendment, which was almost identical to their own motion except it asked for the government to wait until the UN inspectors had given their report.  Cameron and Hague would still have gotten their war.  As it is, Cameron can hardly now go on portraying Miliband as weak when he's suffered such a humiliation himself.

Most important of all though is that last night's vote firmly established that parliament has to be consulted before military action can be taken.  When it came to Libya, MPs voted after the intervention had begun, making it all but unthinkable that they would then ask for the bombers to be brought back.  Barring extreme cases, the royal prerogative has clearly had its day.  Likewise, one of the minor reasons for why last night's vote failed is that with the exception of a few especially egregious Labour MPs, the exact same people who thought Iraq was such a splendid idea were those most vociferous in urging action in SyriaMichael Gove shouldn't be calling others a disgrace, he ought to be reflecting on why it is we are now so resistant to intelligence briefings and the advice of government lawyers.  Not all of the blame can be put on Blair when so many others went along with it; the being misled themselves line simply won't wash.

Finally, the only message this sends to Assad is that Britain won't be joining in an attack.  If the US and France as planned want to make either a pointless gesture to prevent Obama being embarrassed over the breaching of his red line, or alternatively fully intervene on the side of the rebels, then bully for them.  All it signifies is that we won't be rushed into another potentially foolhardy conflict, nothing more.  Those who invoke the image of gassed or burned children as demanding action seem to have no such concerns as to our intervening on the side of rebels who use child soldiers or murder them in cold blood on video, nor are many of them similarly outraged when other states bombard heavily populated areas with no concern for human lifeAs Simon Jenkins writes, not intervening now takes more political courage than doing so, so skewed has the Westminster bubble become.

P.S. It's nice to see that last night has at the very least provided us with a new African euphemism: 

It is understood that Greening and Simmonds were in a room near the Commons chamber, discussing the situation in Rwanda, when the vote was called.

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