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Cameron suffers the worst foreign policy defeat in modern times

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.


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