Rarely has a UK prime minister done so much damage to himself in a single week as David Cameron has with his mishandling of a vote authorising military action against Syria. Cameron may cling onto power after his stunning parliamentary defeat on Thursday night, but he will cut a diminished figure on the domestic and international stage. In the process, he has also damaged Britain’s influence.
Cameron’s litany of errors began with his decision to recall parliament from its summer holidays in order to give the green light to British participation in a military strike designed to punish Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its people last week. The decision to get parliament’s approval was right, even if not constitutionally necessary. The mistake was to rush things before all the evidence of Assad’s culpability had been gathered and published. In France, which is also contemplating military action, the parliamentary debate is scheduled for next week.
To be fair, Cameron tried to achieve political consensus. He initially persuaded Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, to back military action. He also got Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, to sign up. Both of these are also partly to blame for the fiasco. They should have attached many more conditions to their support.
Miliband quickly saw the error of his ways, especially after Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations’ secretary general, pleaded for his inspectors to be given more time to complete their on-the-scene investigation of the chemical attack. The Labour leader insisted not only on more time, but also that there should be compelling evidence of Assad’s culpability and that the government should aim to secure approval by the U.N. Security Council before launching any strike.
Large numbers of backbench Conservative MPs were also queasy about getting involved in the Syrian civil war, as was a majority of the British public. The shadow of the Iraq war, which parliament authorised on the basis of dodgy intelligence, loomed large.
If Cameron had been sensible, he would have responded to Miliband’s U-turn by letting MPs debate Syria but delaying a vote on military action until the evidence had all been processed and published. But he probably thought this would look weak, given that he had just called them back prematurely from their holidays. The prime minister was also probably anxious to keep to a deal he had seemingly done with Barack Obama to join America in military strikes as soon as this weekend.
Cameron, therefore, chose another tactic: he decided to give MPs two votes. The first one was to authorise the use of military action in principle but subject to certain conditions, including waiting for the U.N. inspectors to finish their job and trying to get U.N. Security Council approval. After this, the government was to return to parliament to have a second vote – for a full green light.
The ploy might have worked, if Cameron had made a bigger effort to get Miliband back onside. But instead, Miliband published a lengthy amendment to Cameron’s motion.
The two proposals were similar in many ways. Both, for example, accepted that it might be right to take military action even if the U.N. Security Council didn’t approve it. But Miliband’s version had a couple of important extra conditions. First, he wanted the evidence of Assad’s guilt to be “compelling.” Second, he wanted any action to have “precise and achievable objectives.”
Labour’s version was an improvement on the government’s motion. Cameron should have negotiated an agreed compromise statement which would have received massive support in parliament. Instead, he made another error. His office started briefing against Miliband, accusing him of “giving succour” to Assad. This foolish action drove the two sides further apart.
Cameron actually performed quite well in parliament – certainly better than either Miliband or Clegg. But the damage was done. Although Labour’s amendment was easily defeated, the government couldn’t carry its motion either after a group of its own MPs joined the opposition.
The prime minister’s mistakes didn’t stop there. Parliament hadn’t actually voted against military action; it just hadn’t authorised it. But Cameron immediately said that Britain now wouldn’t take part in any strikes against Syria. He should have said he would consult with Miliband and reflect carefully on what to do.
His knee-jerk reaction means that even if the U.N. inspectors do produce compelling evidence, the UK will not be part of the alliance to punish Syria. Even if Assad launches a new attack, it will stand on the sidelines. If anything, it is Cameron’s mishandling of the situation which will give “succour” to Assad.
Cameron’s authority at home and abroad has now tanked. Not only has he been unable to get the country to support him; he hasn’t been able to carry his party either. The UK’s so-called special relationship with America has taken a knock too. Britain shouldn’t be in the position of always jumping to do what the United States wants. It should be measured, fair and alive to its own national interests. But what has happened in the last few days is that Britain – or, at least, Cameron – has shown itself to be flaky. How badly that damages its relationship with its most important ally remains to be seen. But it won’t be easily forgotten.