August 30, 2013 8:03 pm

Politics: A leader humbled, a nation cut down to size

Miscalculations over Syria raise questions over Britain’s appetite to continue punching above its weight
David Cameron

Thirteen votes shy: an MP from David Cameron’s party described Thursday’s loss as ‘a catalogue of incompetence’

David Cameron began the week confident that the UK would take part in military action against Syria – probably by this weekend. The prime minister ended it reeling from a humiliating defeat in the House of Commons that forced him to rule out British participation in any assault.

This was the most spectacular defeat of Mr Cameron’s political career. Political analysts – searching for precedents – declared that this was the first time that a UK prime minister had been defeated in parliament, on a matter of war and peace, since 1782.

The implications go well beyond the future of Mr Cameron. The UK parliament’s vote raises obvious questions about whether the Obama administration’s plans for a limited assault on Syrian military installations will face a similar backlash in the US. And beyond the immediate Syrian crisis, this week’s events pose big questions about Britain’s role in global politics and about its much-vaunted “special relationship” with America.

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Gideon Rachman

So how did it come to this? Thursday night’s Commons vote was partly the product of short-term political miscalculations by Britain’s coalition government. But it also reflected a deeper long-term trend. The turmoil in the Middle East that began with the Egyptian revolution of January 2011 has revealed Mr Cameron as an instinctive interventionist. But, as the Syrian crisis has unfolded, a dangerous gap has opened up between the prime minister’s worldview and the more cautious instincts of several other important players – including the UK security establishment, the US president, British public opinion and even, as it turned out, many of Mr Cameron’s own backbench MPs.

This gap was exposed by a clash between a military timetable devised in Washington and the political timetable in Britain. Reports emerged of the chemical weapons attack in Syria on August 21. Barack Obama and Mr Cameron spoke at 4.30pm on Saturday, August 24, according to people familiar with the situation. The US president made it clear that he wanted a swift military response – before global outrage dissipated and Bashar al-Assad’s regime had the chance to prepare its defences. The possibility of staging cruise missile strikes the following weekend was discussed. That meant that Mr Cameron had to get parliamentary approval fast. At first, the prime minister was confident this could be done. He recalled parliament from its holidays and scheduled a debate for Thursday, potentially 48 hours before an assault would begin.

But, in the run-up to the vote, the prime minister and his team ran into difficulty. A vital moment came on Wednesday afternoon when Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, announced that UN weapons inspectors in Damascus would need four more days to complete their work. Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour party – aware of growing disquiet among his own MPs – seized on the secretary-general’s remarks. He told Downing Street that his party could not support a substantive motion backing military action while UN inspectors were still at work – and before the UN in New York had a chance to consider their report.

Members of Mr Cameron’s camp accused the Labour leader of behaving dishonourably after intimating that he would support a heavily qualified government motion, only to withdraw his support at 5.15pm on Wednesday night – a decision that in effect forced Mr Cameron to scrap his call for immediate military intervention.

A hastily redrafted motion, sent out at just before 7pm that night, included nearly all of Labour’s demands – including a second vote on military action and a commitment to the UN process – but still it was not enough to get the opposition on side. “Miliband double-crossed us twice,” complains one member of the Cameron team. The Labour leader’s hand in Mr Cameron’s humiliation has incensed Downing Street, where aides attacked Mr Miliband in a strikingly personal fashion, before the vote, for giving “succour” to the Assad regime and “flip-flopping” over his position on Syria.

Yet some Conservatives argue that the prime minister would have been wiser either to accept the Labour amendment – similar as it was to the government’s own motion – or pull the vote. Instead, he ploughed on. Many journalists watching the debate were convinced that the prime minister had outperformed his Labour rival. Just minutes before the vote, television commentators were confidently predicting that the prime minister would carry the day. Instead, he fell well short – with the government losing its motion by 285 votes to 272.

The prime minister wants to use the military, he just doesn’t want to pay for it

- A senior UK military official

The failure to win bipartisan support for military action was clearly fatal to Mr Cameron’s chances. But the government was also laid low by a disastrous failure of party management. “It is just a catalogue of incompetence,” says one Tory backbencher – supportive of the government on Thursday – as he reflects on the whipping operation in the run-up to the vote. “I got my first phone call from the whip’s office at 5pm, despite writing quite publicly about my misgivings on intervention. There was no whip operation to identify who needed to be brought on board.”

Thirty Tory MPs voted against their own government, as well as nine MPs from the Liberal Democrats, the coalition’s junior partner. But Mr Cameron, with a working majority of 84, could easily have won the vote had he ensured those on the government payroll had all voted. Instead, 10 government members missed the division – and a total of 31 Tories chose not to vote at all. “It was cocked-up handling by the little cabal,” says one usually supportive minister, who argues that the prime minister made a fatal miscalculation of relying too heavily on the tight-knit group of hawks around him – William Hague, the foreign secretary, George Osborne, the chancellor, and education secretary Michael Gove – instead of taking in broader soundings from other ministers.

In the aftermath of the vote, a shell-shocked prime minister announced to the House that “I get it” – and immediately ruled out British participation in military action against Syria. This was a course correction so dramatic that it appears to tie his hands from revisiting the subject – even if the kind of conclusive evidence demanded by the sceptics emerges over the next few days.

Accident and misadventure clearly played a big part in this week’s events. But the events were also the culmination of tensions that had been building since the onset of the Syrian civil war.

Mr Cameron has always been on the activist side of the argument. He was clearly keen to see military aid flowing to the Syrian rebels – and would have supported a western declaration of a “no-fly zone” for the Assad forces, if the US was on board.

But the prime minister’s instinctive activism ran into opposition from the British security establishment. The military are much more cautious about foreign engagements since the chastening experiences of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Service chiefs have also been embittered by cuts in military expenditure forced through under the coalition’s austerity programme. One senior military man complained recently that “the prime minister wants to use the military, he just doesn’t want to pay for it”.

Mr Cameron emerged from the Libyan war frustrated by what he regarded as the military’s excessive caution. But it is not just the armed forces who were alarmed by the prime minister’s muscular attitude to the Syrian conflict. Some senior diplomats and intelligence officials were also openly sceptical about the idea of aiding the Syrian rebels because of the strength of jihadist forces, linked to al-Qaeda, within their ranks.

Those members of the British establishment who were unconvinced by the case for action in Syria had come to see Mr Obama as their champion. Over the past year it has been apparent that the US president was much more sceptical of the case for western intervention than the UK prime minister.

But the news of the use of chemical weapons in Syria had appeared to swing the debate in Mr Cameron’s direction. In response, the White House had shifted in the direction of military intervention. For the historically minded, Mr Cameron appeared to be playing a familiar role. Just as Margaret Thatcher had once urged President George HW Bush not to “go wobbly” after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, so once again a UK prime minister would stiffen the spine of a US president.

I am delighted that we relieved ourselves of this imperial pretension

- Crispin Blunt, a Conservative MP

But while Mr Cameron looked across the Atlantic to Washington, he had failed to notice that his political troops were not lined up behind him. The scepticism from some elements in the UK security establishment was reflected in the Tory press. The Daily Mail, a key Conservative newspaper, was openly scornful of the prime minister’s rush to intervene in Syria. All of this discontent in traditionally Conservative circles gave party dissidents the cover to vote against the government or abstain.

The question for Britain now is whether this week’s vote is a historic turning point in foreign policy or an aberration. The fact that the politics were so badly mishandled bolsters the argument that the House of Commons vote was simply an accident. Even Mr Miliband was not intending to send a signal that Britain’s global role has fundamentally changed. Yet accidents can also be turning points, particularly if they reveal and harden underlying shifts in the political mood.

There is a deep, post-Iraq scepticism in Britain about further military adventures in the Middle East. Sarah Wollaston, one of the Tory MPs who voted against the government, reported that more than 500 of her constituents had contacted her to oppose intervention in Syria – in contrast to just over 30 who were in favour. Opinion polls showed roughly two-thirds of the British public were against military action.

This week’s shocking defeat for the government raises obvious questions about Britain’s role in the world. One of the clichés of UK foreign policy is that, although the country is now a middle-ranking power, its goal is to “punch above its weight” in world affairs. Two of the important tools for achieving this ambition were the British armed forces and the UK’s “special relationship” with the US.

Now the British have sent a clear signal that they are less willing to use the military – and less willing to follow America’s lead in foreign affairs. Even some Conservative MPs are calling for the country to embrace a more modest role in global affairs. After the vote, Crispin Blunt, a Tory MP and former army officer, told the BBC that he was “delighted that we relieved ourselves of this imperial pretension”.

The call for the UK to play a smaller role in world affairs finds an echo among a war-weary public. Yet it is too soon to be certain that this will be a lasting mood. The “special relationship” has gone through cycles in the past. Britain stayed out of the Vietnam war but then cleaved much more closely to US foreign policy during the Thatcher and Blair years.

A glance across the Channel also demonstrates how transient diplomatic and political moods can be. France rallied the opposition to the US-led Iraq war in 2003. But the French government was among the first to call for a military reaction to the use of chemical weapons in Syria – and may yet participate in US-led strikes. The spectacle of a joint US-French operation in Syria might then cause a degree of anguish in Britain.

In the aftermath of the British vote, White House officials were adamant that the US would press ahead with its own plans for Syria. It is certainly true that the contribution of the British military to any Syrian operation would have been fairly marginal. But the UK would have been useful for political cover.

However, the spectacle of Mr Cameron’s defeat will play into Mr Obama’s political calculations. He too is faced with a war-weary public and a legislature that is wary of being railroaded into military action. As Mr Cameron’s experiences have demonstrated, the prospect of military action can take politics in new and unexpected directions.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Rigby, Richard McGregor and James Blitz

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