Britain’s retreat from military intervention in Syria has no proud author. The parliamentary vote that apparently settled the matter was a humiliation for the Prime Minister but also a shock to those who humiliated him. Most of the Tory MPs who defied their whips thought they were dabbling in principled protest. None of them thought they were hijacking British foreign policy. “Anyone who claims they weren’t surprised by the result is fibbing,” says one Tory backbencher about his rebellious colleagues.
Even as the votes were being counted, Labour MPs filing through the “no” lobby expected a government victory. The opposition’s goal was to rebuke the PM for adventurism and force him into greater deference to parliament and the UN Security Council. Ed Miliband did not think the debate would end with David Cameron sweeping intervention off the table with a petulant flourish.
None of the parties has a policy of standing idly by as Syria rips itself to shreds. Both Miliband and Cameron say Bashar al-Assad has committed atrocious breaches of international law. There is almost certainly a majority of MPs open, in theory, to endorsing an armed international rebuke. Yet parliament has rejected British participation. A vote that was hailed on the night as a historic assertion of legislative sovereignty now looks like an accident. The UK’s official stance towards Damascus is a policy orphan, unclaimed and unloved.
No shortage of blame is flying around to compensate for the lack of credit being taken. Cameron loyalists have mounted an effective campaign to steer debate away from questions over the Prime Minister’s judgement and towards what George Osborne called “national soul-searching” about Britain’s readiness to be a premier league player in world affairs.
In Downing Street’s version of events, the Tory leader, brimming with moral courage and transatlantic solidarity, has been betrayed by wicked Labour leaders present and past. Equal scorn is heaped on Tony Blair for spoiling the public’s appetite for armed interventions and on Miliband for exploiting that shrivelling of ambition to score points.
It is clever crisis management. What should have been the story of Cameron’s crumbling authority became a challenge to Westminster’s collective moral fibre, which in turn became doubts over whether the Labour leader has what it takes to make tough prime ministerial decisions—an attack line the Tories have been rehearsing for months.
Helpfully for Cameron, there are people on the Labour side who struggle to disagree with No 10’s account of the story. The murmur among some opposition MPs, including shadow ministers, is that the idea of atoning for what many on the left see as the worst sin of Blairism—bamboozling the nation into the Iraq war—seduced Miliband and the move has backfired.
Before the summer, the Labour leader’s internal critics were fretting about his lack of definition. The test for the autumn, they said, would be for Miliband to make some very public choices on tricky issues, express them with conviction and stick with them. Yet here he is, on a matter of life and death, advertising himself to the world as a man of convoluted inaction.
Miliband’s allies expected that charge from the Tories but are dismayed to hear it echoed on their own side. Defenders of the Labour leader in the shadow cabinet point out that the true failure of leadership in recent weeks belongs to Cameron. After all, it was the Prime Minister who prematurely signed Britain up to military strikes, in a phone call with Barack Obama, and then tried to bounce parliament into endorsing them without offering a credible account of what he hoped to achieve.
Besides, it is coalition parties that command a Commons majority and whose undisciplined MPs killed Cameron’s motion. The leader of the opposition’s job is not to make up the numbers when government whips get their sums wrong. It can hardly have been a surprise that the Iraq precedent was a factor in the debate. Even Tories who voted with the government say it made them hesitate. It is curious that the PM was so ill prepared to allay those concerns.
More baffling still is the role of Nick Clegg, whose party fought the last election draped in anti-war piety. The Liberal Democrat leader seems to want equal shares in Miliband’s reservations about firing missiles into Syria and Cameron’s contempt for Miliband when he acts on those reservations.
The temptation, when Westminster is in a state of extreme agitation, is to look for things that will never be the same again. If parliament has decided it doesn’t ever want British military muscle flexed against dictators, that is a significant moment. But that isn’t what MPs now claim they meant to say at all. The lesson of recent years is that when British politics promises never to be the same again, the same again is precisely what it turns out to be. Rhetorical gales howl through Westminster, leaving the landscape unaltered. Cameron is still a chancer with too much confidence in his own powers of persuasion and too shallow a base in his party. Miliband has proven once again to be better at political machination than his enemies expect and worse at inspiration than his friends claim.
As in previous years, the two candidates to be prime minister after 2015 are approaching the annual conference season with many of their supporters unable to muster reasons why they should have the top job beyond the lack of an obvious alternative. Labour and Tory MPs again find themselves urging their leaders to rise above the mediocrity to which every precedent says they are confined. The vote on Syria was a grimly symbolic prelude to the months ahead. It was the story of this parliament in one act: a debate that left the problems it addressed unresolved, while diminishing the leaders who took part. Nobody won.
Rafael Behr is political editor of the New Statesman.