“Increasing pressure” for another vote on Syria

John Rentoul

tel 300x290 Increasing pressure for another vote on Syria The Telegraph front-page lead today is on the increasing pressure for another vote in the House of Commons on Syria. As Robert Hutton will tell you, “increasing pressure” is journalese for “not going to happen”.

As I wrote in The Independent on Sunday, the fundamental point about Thursday’s Government defeat is that there is not and will not be a majority in the Commons for military action in Syria.

Thus some of the reactions to Barack Obama’s announcement on Saturday that he would seek Congress’s approval for air strikes were misplaced. Why did Cameron have to rush? Surely he could have won the vote if he had waited for more evidence?

The reason Cameron recalled Parliament was that Obama’s original timetable, communicated to the Prime Minister eight days ago, was for air strikes around now. Cameron assumed that the Commons, including the Opposition front bench, would approve British participation.

And the reason the President’s timetable has changed is the direct result of Cameron’s defeat on Thursday. That vote was prominently reported in the US media – “The British Aren’t Coming” – and forced Obama to say that he would abide by the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution and ask for a vote in Congress.

The precise sequence of events could have been different, and Cameron could have avoided a headline-grabbing Commons defeat with better parliamentary management, but at some point he would have had to tell Obama that Britain could not join military action because Parliament wouldn’t support it, and Obama would probably have had to concede the same right of veto to Congress.

One reason why it may be hard to grasp the strength of opposition to military action in the Commons is that the proposal was not put to the vote. But the reason Cameron pulled back from a vote authorising air strikes was that he knew he would lose it. The extraordinary thing is that he then lost a motion that said military action would be conditional on a further vote. Opposition to British intervention in Syria is so strong that 39 Conservative and Lib Dem MPs voted against their Government because the motion said that the strong humanitarian response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons “may, if necessary, require military action”.

That, I think, is that. Unless the situation in Syria changes completely, the Commons won’t support it. It might have been possible to secure a reluctant majority had Ed Miliband stuck to his original position and supported it, but he was not prepared to risk a rebellion of up to half of his parliamentary party. That moment has passed and cannot be brought back.

On Thursday, Cameron should have made the speech Obama made on Saturday:

What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?  What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?

He might have saved his weak and temporising motion, but I still don’t think he would have persuaded the House of Commons to support military action.

By his U-turn on Wednesday night, Ed Miliband achieved something extraordinary. He rebalanced the US Constitution and forced the President to go to Congress. I am not sure that Congress will support military action either. If it doesn’t, Miliband will also have been responsible for rendering all the world’s treaties against the use of chemical weapons worthless. Not bad for a day’s work.

I don’t mean that in a particularly hostile way, although others feel strongly about “such a carnival of inaction, such a festival of paralysis”. Many of those who voted against the Government on Thursday did so for good reasons; but they should accept that inaction has consequences too.

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  • mightymark

    I’ve Googled it. Frost asked it first in 2002 then there is something to the effect that Paxman asked it again in Feb 2003 but although I’ve scanned the interview I can’t actually find the words. Bloody silly question whoever asked it!

  • Newsbot9

    Syria isn’t an ICC member, which complicates things.

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