The British Parliament’s decisive vote not to attack Syria is a humiliation for David Cameron and a hiccup in the “special relationship” between America and Britain. But it’s also more significant than many Americans realize. Over 20% of Cameron’s Conservatives voted against Cameron or abstained. This makes for one of the worst rebellions in British politics in the last 60 years.
Worst Disaster For A Sitting Government Since 1924
It is the first time since 1924 that a British Government has been defeated on a foreign policy vote. The 1924 government was a minority Labour Government that could have been brought down on any issue. It was brought down by the infamous Zinoviev letter which detailed a fake communist plot, and later turned out to be a right-wing forgery.
Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister when World War II broke out. British landings in Norway lost troops, lost ships, lost planes, and failed to save Norway from the Germans.There was a Labour motion of No Confidence in the Government’s handling of the war. Chamberlain won the vote, but he had to resign as Prime Minister. Chamberlain had to resign as Prime Minister because over 25% of Conservative MPs voted against the Conservative Government, or abstained.
Cameron In Same League Of Failure As Neville Chamberlain
If a Government is refused the approval of Parliament for its foreign policy, the credibility of the Government is put in doubt. No foreign statesman can accept anything Cameron says uncritically.
Cameron’s failure is not as bad as Neville Chamberlain’s failure, but it is in the same league of failure. Worse, it was a self-inflicted injury. If Cameron had said that Britain was not going to intervene in Syria he would not now be at risk. So why did Cameron get himself into this situation?
There is a huge feeling in Britain that Blair’s War against Iraq was on the basis of Weapons of Mass Destruction that turned out not to exist. There is a widely held belief that the Blair government lied to Parliament and to the British people to obtain agreement to attack Iraq. Many people simply do not trust any British Government or any American Government to tell the truth. Both Iraq and Afghanistan were easy countries to get into, but are proving difficult countries to get out of again. If we have British boots on the ground in Syria, how many British soldiers will die? How many will be wounded? And for what?
Can of Worms
If we intervene against Assad we ally ourselves with Al Qaida. Will the weapons we supply to “the good guys” end up in the hands of Al Qaida? Cameron made it worse by saying that we were going to throw missiles at Syria. Who actually believes that innocent civilians will not be killed?
Labour’s leaders were perhaps willing to go along with yet another war in the Middle East but the vast majority of Labour activists and Members of Parliament made it clear that Labour would split over Syria. The fragile leadership of Ed Miliband would be isolated from the party membership and from the party activists. Individual MPs report that they have had more letters about Syria than any other issue under this government. The letters all said “Don’t send our boys! It is a can of worms. Keep out!”
Ed Miliband tried to keep options open by an amendment to the Government motion which basically said “Lets look at this later, after the UN inspectors have been. Let the UN discuss it first.”
Poor Conservative Management
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat majority voted down the Labour amendment. Then on the final vote on the original Conservative motion, the government lost! Labour stayed unified by voting against any action at the moment. But one in ten Conservative MPs voted against the Government, and one in ten abstained. One Tory who voted against had served in the Royal Air Force in Iraq. He was not prepared to send our boys into such a mess again.
How could the Conservatives have got themselves into such a catastrophe? It seems the Conservative leadership was utterly surprised by the fact that one in five Tories would not support the Government. The Chief Whip’s job is to make sure the Government wins every vote. The Chief Whip it seems had no idea the discontent was that strong. So everyone wants to criticise the Chief Whip. But who appointed the Chief Whip? David Cameron!
To make matters worse, the current Chief Whip is the second Chief Whip David Cameron has appointed. The first one had to resign after he reportedly swore at two Protection police officers. Interestingly, no Tory MP was prepared to say to the TV cameras that this alleged behaviour was out of character.
Who To Blame?
The Tory leaders at first blamed Labour. Ed Miliband was not being the pussy he usually is. The more the Tories blamed Labour the stronger this made Mr Miliband as leader of his party. It was self-defeating.
Next the Tory leaders blamed the rebels. Then it dawned on the leadership that if they continued to blame the rebels the leadership was setting itself up for future revolts. Whoops! Necessary to kiss and make up!
So now blame the Chief Whip! So who appointed him? Whoops!
Cameron’s Fragile Leadership
David Cameron is not liked by his own party. Many Conservatives hanker for the glory days of Margaret Thatcher. She took on the trade unions and she beat them. She was attacked in the Falklands and she sent a task force to retake the Falklands. The Argentinian Military Regime fell in consequence. Mrs Thatcher stood up to the European Union.
So the pro-Thatcher supporters are numerous and vocal. They despise Cameron because he is not the man that Margaret Thatcher was.
Cameron failed to win a majority in the House of Commons. The unpopular Gordon Brown held on to enough seats that Cameron had to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. It seems to many right-wing Conservatives that Cameron welcomes the coalition because the coalition government will not do many of the things that a full-blown Conservative government would do. Cameron blames the Liberals but many of the Tory Right blame Cameron.
Labour has been leading the Conservatives in the opinion polls for about fifteen months. Labour wavers between 37% and 42%. The Conservatives are generally 30%-33%. If these figures were reflected in a General Election Labour would have an overall majority of 40 or more. So there are about 60 Tory MPs who are likely to lose their seats in the next General Election. They desperately want to see a change of course by the Government that might lead to the Government being re-elected. And them keeping their jobs! The problem is that Cameron shows no sign of changing course. This leads to fear and frustration in the Conservative Parliamentary party.
Could There Be A Coup?
Cameron is not the first Conservative Prime Minister to be thought to be failing. There are three ways Cameron can be forced to go. Margaret Thatcher and John Major faced leadership challenges. Although Margaret Thatcher won a majority of Tory MP votes, she did not win by a large enough margin. There had to be a second ballot. Almost her entire Cabinet told her that she would lose the second ballot. She had to go.
Major challenged his opponents to put up a candidate against him. No candidate stood. End of story.
Now that the Conservative electorate includes ordinary Party members as well as MPs it is unlikely that a leadership challenge will happen. No-one wants to be blamed for the damage that would be caused to the party by such an election. No-one is confident that they would win. And if they did win there is not enough time to reposition the party before the next election in May 2015.
The second route to ease Cameron out is for a number of respected Tories to go to Cameron in a group saying that Cameron has lost public confidence and that he has to go. If Cameron refuses to go, he stays. They resign or they are made to look pathetic. Cameron then has jobs to give to “good” MPs.
The third route is that there are a number of rebellions against flagship legislation to the point where the Government just cannot operate. This has been the first major rebellion. If these rebellions continue then eventually Cameron will have to go. Or he may stand for re-election as party leader and see who wins.
Miliband Plays It Canny
Labour’s system for internal party elections is the single transferable vote. The candidate with the fewest votes drops out and his or her votes are redistributed according to their second preferences. The weakest drops out until one candidate scores 50% plus one. Of the six candidates for leader the final two were Ed Miliband and his elder brother David Miliband. Ed won by a very narrow margin.
There is no serious challenge to Ed Miliband. The older generation are seen as too old. Ed won his election fair and square.
With Labour’s longstanding lead in the opinion polls, then short of a major upset Labour will be elected in May 2015. All Miliband has to do is to keep support at its present levels and Labour forms the next government. So Miliband has been very quiet and cautious. He is keeping his powder dry. The coalition is in difficulties. Miliband is letting them stew and squabble with each other.
Miliband has been under pressure from his party to come out fighting, and to attack the Government for all its failings and wickedness. Syria may mark the resurgence or further surge of a Miliband Labour Party led from the front.
The Liberal Democrats
The Liberal Democrats lost seats at the last General Election. Everyone expects the Liberal Democrats to lose many more seats at the next General Election. In most cases the opponent most likely to win is a Conservative. The Liberals are despised by both the major parties because of their opportunistic and dishonest behaviour. For instance the Liberals voted for cuts in public expenditure and are now running lots of local campaigns to “save our fire station” or “save our hospital”. The fire stations and the hospitals are being closed because of the cuts the Liberal Democrats voted for.
With many Liberal MPs believing they will lose their seats at the next election they are desperately trying to persuade their activists that the MP is worth trying to save. So they are blaming the Conservatives for everything.
The latest twist is the news that a Liberal Democrat’s Ministry granted export licences to export dual use chemicals to Syria last year. They are called “dual use” because they have civilian uses and they can be used to make poison gases.
What Happens Next?
In terms of Syria, Britain is supposedly not involved. If we have Special Forces in Syria we will have to pull them out. Obama is playing his own complicated game with the Republicans. The American Government runs out of money in October, so there is a serious issue whether in September the Republicans will vote for military action in Syria. Significant numbers of Democrats will vote against. So Obama scores macho points by being willing to attack Syria – but the Congress won’t let him!
In the UK Cameron’s Government has had a major defeat. There are significant numbers of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs who reasonably fear that without major changes in policy the Government will lose the election and that they will lose their seats. In such a situation it is each rat for himself!
Watch for Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs quietly talking to Labour about joining Labour. Watch the Miliband led Labour Party stepping up its opposition and its rhetoric.
Watch for leading Tories attacking Cameron to try to persuade him to go.