Who's to blame? Cameron, the Whips, or both?
Conservative MPs I spoke to yesterday were excoriating about the shambles of the recall of Parliament and the whipping of yesterday's vote. One told me that the first he heard of the decision to recall was a message from EasyJet offering him a flight back. "Perhaps the Whips Office should just be franchised out to EasyJet," he told me. Another said that he wasn't contacted by the Whips until Wednesday evening, less than 24 hours before the start of yesterday's debate. A third said that he had a missed call from one of the Prime Minister's PPS's, but no message or text explaining it or asking him to ring back. One of the three said that although Sir George Young runs the office in a calm and courteous way, it lacks the presence of MPs with a feel for what their backbench colleagues are thinking: as others have done, he recommended the recruitment of Tracey Crouch, one of yesterday evening's rebels. He also offered the thought that the Government Whips Office has not recovered the status it lost under Tony Blair, when it was moved out of 12 Downing Street.
A senior backbench source disagreed with this view, claiming that the Whips warned Downing Street months ago that as many as 70 Conservative MPs could vote against intervention in Syria. (Those who opposed the Government motion yesterday were only the tip of the iceberg, since the motion was effectively a dry run for one proposing such action.) I suspect that the truth is between these two extremes. It's important to remember that most Whips would themselves have been absent from Westminster earlier this week, and a co-ordinated office ring-round both to ask backbenchers to return to the Commons and seek their views on military action would therefore have been slower to get under way than in term time. Above all, David Cameron was clearly thrown by Ed Miliband's volte-face on missile strikes: he was expecting a Labour abstention which would allow the original Government motion to pass. In other words, he was prepared to push his Syria policy through in the teeth of the opposition of perhaps a third of Tory MPs, and thus risking yesterday's wounding blow to his authority - and defeat for Government foreign policy unprecedented in modern times.