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Last updated: August 30, 2013 12:52 am
At times during Thursday’s seven-hour marathon Commons debate on Syria it felt like MPs were not debating this conflict, but one that began 10 years ago.
Presenting his case for carrying out strikes on Syrian weapons targets, David Cameron spoke almost as much about Iraq as he did about Syria.
The prime minister began by telling colleagues: “It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict, it is not about invading, it is not about regime change and it is not even about working more closely with the opposition.”
If the subtext of his speech needed clarifying, it did not take him long to do so: “The well of public opinion has been well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode,” Mr Cameron said.
The approach did not work.
Despite his late offer of a second vote before any direct British involement, the prime minister on Thursday night lost his attempt to win support for military strikes in principle by 13 votes.
The rebels may have been swayed by Mr Cameron’s own arguments. In his attempts to avoid repeating the mistakes of Tony Blair, he insisted there would be no “smoking gun” that proved the Assad regime was to blame for launching chemical attacks against Syrian citizens.
Instead, he urged MPs to make a judgement on what they believed to be true.
The problem for the prime minister is that they did exactly that, and judged the prime minister to be in the wrong.
For supporters of strikes against Syria, this is a huge blow.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chairman of the parliamentary intelligence committee, said: “This is the legacy of the Iraq war. We must hope the US takes the necessary action, otherwise the Assad regime will be the eventual winners of tonight’s vote and the people of Syria the losers.”
The vote also reflects public opinion, with a YouGov poll that finding British voters opposed military action by two to one.
Joe Twyman, director of political research at YouGov, drew parallels with the situation before the conflicts in Iraq and Libya, saying: “Once Britain had committed to those conflicts, support did grow”.
However, he warned: “This looks different – it is less clear what the end point of this would be.”
Whatever the US now chooses to do, it is clear the prime minister’s inability to carry his own party in his chosen course of action has harmed his reputation for effective leadership.
One backbencher said: “This is very embarrassing for Cameron. He has pushed this on the international stage when he hadn’t got the party on board.”
Nick Clegg, Mr Cameron’s deputy, has also been embarrassed by the result. Tim Farron, his own party president, refused to vote with the government.
Mr Farron’s rebellion came despite his party leader having spent an hour trying to persuade his parliamentary party to back him.
The one party leader strengthened by what happened last night is Ed Miliband, even though his own Commons speech made it clear he had not yet made up his mind on whether strikes were warranted.
Mr Miliband’s delaying tactics may have won him an immediate political victory, but it could also backfire on the international stage, not least with Washington.
One minister said: “These things are remembered, as John Major found out when he had problems with Bill Clinton, who blamed the Tories for helping smear him during his election campaign against George Bush.”
It seems likely that all three British party leaders will be diminished in the eyes of their US counterparts.
Yet, while Thursday night’s vote may be unprecedented, much of the debate from the past few days has been anything but.
Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, said: “Although David Cameron stressed that this was not another Iraq, the details of the debate all look very familiar. Going to the UN, a tense debate in the Commons, getting further intelligence – we’ve seen all this before.”
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