By Harry Phibbs
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The Times this morning reports(£) that at a meeting of Conservative MPs this week, David Cameron asked them to consider what Margaret Thatcher would have done over Syria.
The report says his comment was "gauche" and prompted a "collective wince." But I think it is a interesting and useful question. That is not to suggest that we can be certain what she would think. Or that if we could we should automatically concur. However, it might help to clarify our own judgment.
Lady Thatcher's book Statecraft, published in 2002, offered a warning of what we might have to contend with:
"US and Israeli officials are reported to have confirmed that Syria is continuing to build chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. The programme was begun by the late president in order to counter Israel's superiority in conventional weapons, which has greatly increased in recent years.
"Syria began producing a Sarin-gas-based warhead in the mid-1980s, and it has since been pressing ahead with acquiring and building ever-longer-range Scud missiles to carry them. It has apparently now developing a Scud with a seven-hundred-kilometre range, which could hit Israel from a point much deeper in Syrian territory, making the launchers more difficult to locate and hit.
"By acting in this fashion, Syria is sharply upgrading the threat it poses to our own broader security interests, and it must be made to understand that this cannot and will not continue."
She added that Syria "has a very unpleasant regime, even if that unpleasantness is directed more against Muslims than against Westerners". It has "consistently supported terrorist groups determined to destabilise Israel and block peace with the Palestinians".
I asked yesterday whether David Cameron or the Whips bore the main responsibility for this week's party management disaster over Syria. A day later, the answer is evident. Downing Street presumed, not unreasonably, that Ed Miliband would deliver a Labour abstention on the vote. The Whips - also not unreasonably - took their cue from Number 10, made the same presumption, and told some Conservative MPs that they didn't need to return. One was no less senior a person than the Chairman of the 1922 Committee. In essence, the Prime Minister was prepared to hold a vote on missile strikes despite opposition to the move from a third or more of Tory MPs. This is party mismanagement on an epic scale.
We asked in our monthly survey, posted on this site on Wednesday: "Should Britain join the US and France in prosecuting missile strikes against the Assad regime in Syria?" Here are the responses from Conservative members:
In other words, nearly half of Tory member respondents were opposed to such strikes. But they were outnumbered by those supporting them, though of the 54 per cent doing so, 42 per cent set the condition of UN approval or Parliamentary approval - or both.
In the aftermath of yesterday evening's vote - apparently unparalleled since 1782 - it is impossible to know which version of events is the more accurate. What is clear, however, is that the failure of the Prime Minister's gamble over Syria is a reminder that the success of his summer to date has not bridged the gap of trust which persists between him and his MPs, and which at times can widen into a gulf.
Number 10 would be in panic mode were it immediately to effect the changes recommended below - the first two of which this site has been campaigning for since I became its Editor in April. But until or unless they are implemented, the progress which Downing Street has made since the Queen's Speech and the Baron amendment will be at constant risk of being set back. A hung Parliament requires a more collective style of leadership.
By Mark Wallace
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Having had a few hours to mull the implications of last nights extraordinary defeat for the Government on their watered down Syria motion, here are my eight observations on what it means for Britain, Westminster, the Conservatives and David Cameron
1) Iraq Syndrome has afflicted Westminster.
In The Path Of Power, Margaret Thatcher wrote of "Suez syndrome":
"[The political class] went from believing that Britain could do anything to an almost neurotic belief that Britain could do nothing."
It took until the Falklands to shake off the affects of Suez Syndrome on Britain's political will. While the onset has taken longer, and the symptoms are more complex, Iraq Syndrome has undoubtedly set in.
The new affliction is more pernicious than a simple lack of confidence - not only has it made MPs sceptical of UK military capabilities, it has shattered Parliamentary and public faith in the intelligence services.
Cameron was blunt about the limitations of intelligence, apparently as a counter to memories of Tony Blair's messianic certainty. He couldn't guarantee the outcome of war (who can?), nor could he declare 100 per cent certainty about what happens on the ground in Syria. It wasn't enough.
The Blair Government has more to answer for than first realised. While they wheeled and dealed to get what they wanted over Iraq, they apparently gave no thought to the longer term consequences of their willingness to do anything to win. In their belief that the moral imperative to save Iraqis from Saddam justified almost any tactic, they have inadvertently today helped to condemn Syrians to continued suffering at the hands of Assad.
One day, we will almost certainly say "never again", again.
2) Parliament is in the ascendant over the Executive
The 2010 manifesto promised "greater democratic control" of Royal Prerogative powers like war-making. 81 Tory MPs wrote to the Prme Minister earlier in the summer demanding a vote on arming the Syrian rebels, and earlier in the week at least 70 MPs of all parties campaigned for a Commons vote before any military action be taken in Syria. ConHome supports that principle.
Last night we saw the first test of this Parliamentary Doctrine. It certainly makes things less predictable, and in this instance shows the potential for the Commons to make policy more representative of the people.
I was half expecting Cameron to stand up at the end and produce a cautious statement about how the House doesn't support action against Assad "at this stage", but instead he accepted the verdict as final.
Parliament has gained the upper hand over the Executive in what ought to be a permanent way. I don't share MPs' opinion on what is right to do in Syria, but I am glad we now require the representatives of the people to vote before we fight. What that means for how our foreign policy works in future is still unclear.
3) Relations with the US are rocked, while Putin will gloat
It's true to say that the Americans can - and still may - act without us. If they do it will likely be with France as their main ally, and without British, Chinese and Russian agreement at the UN Security Council.
Vladimir Putin will be delighted that he has succeeded in dividing those who pose a threat to his own foreign and domestic plans, while Washington will be justifiably unsure if it can rely on British promises ever again. This isn't the destruction of the special relationship - the anglosphere is built on cultural and trading ties rather than just political agreement - but it is the start of a new age of more uncertain alliances.
4) Cameron's summer sun didn't last long
Before the recall of Parliament, the Prime Minister was having a brilliant summer. Labour were in disarray, the backbenches were pleased that Wharton's EU Referendum Bill was making progress, Abu Qatada had finally gone away, Andy Murray won Wimbledon, England won the Ashes and so on.
But now he is back to where he was before the summer. Unable to control his party, and on foreign policy in the awkward situation of being unable to make reliable promises to his allies. We had predicted that the return of Parliament would swiftly threaten the love-in in the Conservative Parliamentary Party, and it has collapsed even more spectacularly than we would have imagined.
5) Relations between the leadership and the backbenches are at a new low
As well as the biggest defeat on foreign policy in living memory, and the first Government defeat on a matter of war and peace since the vote which saw us lose America in 1782, this will inject a new tension into the already fraught relationship between the centre and the backbenches.
The Prime Minister may have fronted up to the defeat, but it is undeniably a painful and embarrassing experience for him - particularly as he lost at the hands of his own MPs, not the Opposition. John Major's "bastards" never inflicted anything so personally damaging. We have already heard reports of Michael Gove shouting "disgrace" at the rebels last night, and no doubt others feel the same way.
It will take a cool head and a lot of rising above to prevent this turning into a total breakdown of communications between the ministers and other MPs.
6) The Whips are in for a thrashing
An remarkable aspect of last night's defeat is the part which the Whips played, or rather failed to play. Many MPs heard almsot nothing from their Whip until the night before Parliament returned - and some weren't contacted until the very last minute on the day itself.
We don't yet know who made the misjudgement, but there seems to have been an assumption that the Government's majority was not under threat. Perhaps Sir George Young miscalculated, or perhaps he warned Downing Street and was ignored.
Either way, alarm bells should have been ringing when MPs were tweeting about how light and free vote-like the whipping operation was. Instead, the Government seems to have thought everything was fine until the very last minute.
7) "Coffee with no biscuits" for Justine Greening and Mark Simmonds
Reportedly, these two Government Ministers somehow missed the vote by accident. Accounts vary as to whether they were in a meeting somewhere and didn't notice the time, or that they didn't hear the division bell, or both.
It's extremely embarrassing, and not the kind of thing a Minister would choose to do immediately before a reshuffle. I'd expect there will be some stern words this morning.
8) Miliband is still a mess
Despite Labour's attempts to claim this as a victory for them, in fact their strategy - such as it was - turned out to be fairly irrelevant. Miliband's decision to pledge support to the Prime Minister and then backtrack may have destabilised Cameron's plans at a crucial moment, but it doesn't seem to be what the Labour leader wanted to do.
Instead, he was caught up in in-fighting among his own Shadow Cabinet and even lost a Shadow Minister over the issue. His alternative yesterday was one of the most muddled things to come before the Commons that I can remember, and his flip-flop is not a good sign for his decision-making on serious matters.
Voters may not agree with Cameron's plan, but they certainly won't be attracted by an Oppposition leader who can't make his mind up.
Some believe that the executive should control foreign policy, others that the legislature should do so. But whatever view one takes of the theory, one thing is certain about the practice: an administration that can't shape its foreign policy risks being seen abroad as weak. This is precisely where the Government stands today. Yesterday morning, it was poised to move a Commons motion proposing immediate military action against the Assad regime. A day later, it is proposing one suggesting such action later…perhaps…after the report of the U.N Investigation Team…despite that team having no mandate to "apportion blame" (in the words of the motion)…and after further efforts to secure a Security Council resolution…despite previous efforts to do so having been unsuccessful because of the council's "failure…to take united action" (again in the words of the motion). These contortions and contradictions only highlight what is not so much a U-turn as a V-turn.
It isn't yet clear whether Ed Miliband took a lead, and went for Cameron's throat in the same way that he eventually went for Rupert Murdoch's over Leveson, or whether he merely followed his own Iraq-traumatised backbenchers' reluctance to support the Government. Similarly, it also isn't apparent whether the Prime Minister took the initiative in amending his own motion, or whether others in government confronted him with the brutal reality - namely, that he was set to lose this evening's vote. Hence the climbdown. The simple fact is that Cameron began the week by talking very big about Syria, and will end it by acting very small. In one sense, this is arguably for the good. It isn't clear why a missile strike on a few Syrian military compounds or Presidential palaces would deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again, assuming (as it is reasonable to do) that it used them recently in Damascus. And as I have written many times on this site, Britain must not be drawn into Syria's civil war.
British Muslims were strongly opposed to the Iraq War, as I remember from being in the Commons at the time. Do they take a different view of British missile strikes on Syria - and on military intervention more broadly? I spoke earlier today to Mohammed Amin, the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum and a frequent contributor to this website (see here, for example), who doubts whether this is the case, though he stressed that he has neither been canvassing opinion nor seeking views. "British Muslims' view of the Iraq war tended to be that it consisted of western non-Muslims bombing Iraqi Muslims, and there's no reason to think that their view of intervention in Syria would be different," he told me.
None the less, there is an important difference between Syria now and Iraq pre-invasion. Saddam maintained his grip on the latter until the country was invaded. Assad has lost his hold on parts of Syria, which is engulfed in civil war - one, furthermore, of an increasingly sectarian nature. On the one side are Shi'ite Muslims, some better-off Sunnis, most Christians and the ruling Alawite clans; on the other are Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, many poorer Sunnis and democratic liberals. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are among the Sunni countries backing the opposition; Shi'ite Iran is the main Muslim supporter of Assad. There are some signs that this polarisation between the two Islamic traditions is being felt in Britain.
By the waters of Leynarvatn, J.Alfred Prufrock - MP for Grummidge West, real ale enthusiast, Faroe Islands devotee, Wolves fan and cycle lane maniac - sat down and wept. Or would have done, were his expectations of life greater and his experience of Parliament less. The last streaks of sunset were decorating the Streymoy skyline like a rainbow. Beside him, his Blackberry flickered in the gathering dark.
"PHONE GREG HANDS," it declared. Prufrock groaned aloud at this intrusion from the world outside - this serpent of a message sent to destroy his paradise. He had fled to it five days earlier consumed by sensations of almost unearthly joy. The best part of a week free from constituents! And from Mrs Prufrock, and young Billy Wright Prufrock, and even younger Wilhelmina Wright Prufrock!
It's clear that the instincts of David Cameron and William Hague, as well as those of French Ministers, have long supported further western military intervention in Syria - that's to say, the supply of more weapons to the Syrian Free Army (British and French pressure eased an EU arms embargo in May); training for elements of it; backing for a no-fly zone.
However, any window for such intervention is no longer open. Opinions vary about whether it ever was: Mark Wallace and I have made different cases about the matter on this site. But the military advice the Prime Minister has received is that such action in concert with other western countries isn't practicable (regardless of whether or not it is advisable).
What the Prime Minister now wants overlaps with such action, but isn't identical with it - namely, a missile strike by western countries in response to what he believes was the use of chemical weapons in Ghoura by the Assad regime. But given the wariness in Westminster of Britain being dragged into Syria's civil war, he has three main obstacles to negotiate.
Julian Lewis, the former Shadow Defence Minister and an opponent of intervention, told me earlier today that there is a case for a missile strike (to show Assad that the use of chemical weapons will meet a response) and a case against (that it would almost certainly end the fragile rapprochment between America and Russia established over weapons inspections).
On balance, he said, he was against such a strike - but that there is an argument for it, and it can be kept distinct from the kind of intervention I described earlier. The Prime Minister could gamble by meeting with the National Security Council on Wednesday, obtaining its consent for an immediate strike, and justifying it after the Commons returns next week.
However, MPs would almost certainly see such a move as a breach of the spirit, if not the letter, of recent Foreign Office indications that the Commons would be consulted. Such short-term action would thus make any further strikes and intervention more difficult for the Government in the medium-term. My sense is that Number Ten recogises this.
The most rational way forward for Ministers, therefore, would be for them to make the case for a strike in the Commons. But it is far from certain that this would succeed. On the one hand, MPs will feel that any use of chemical weapons by Assad demands a response. On the other, they won't want Britain to act without UN agreement, and risk being dragged into the Syrian conflict.
It isn't true to claim that there's nothing Britain can do about the use of chemical weapons in Syria - at least, if the United States was also determined to act. America, acting in concert with its allies, undoubtedly has the military muscle to overthrow the Assad regime. This would halt any use by the latter of such arms. As the Guardian points out today, their deployment against innocents near Damascus yesterday would not be the first time that Assad has been accused of acting in such a way. The US followed Britain and France in stating in June that the Syrian government had "probably" used chemical weapons three times earlier this year. President Obama has been saying for a year that the use chemical weapons by the regime would be a "red line" that must not be crossed. That it is likely already to have been crossed will have given the green light to tyrants everywhere. On the face of it, yesterday's horror will have reminded them that it is still turned on, and that American leadership in the world is weak. And while military intervention by the United States has its downsides (to put it mildly), history suggests that non-intervention and isolationism is generally worse.