The ghost of Iraq past and Syria present – 30 August 2013

I don’t think David Cameron is a bad egg. His family policies (or those of his Chancellor) have caused me to agree with the Daily Mail on numerous occasions, which is not very usual to be honest… but by the by. I believed him yesterday when he said he wanted to be open and transparent and not to repeat the foul-ups of 2003. And so his surprise defeat was, I think, more about Iraq and domestic politics than it was about Syria.

So, why did he lose the vote?


According to opinion polls, and Lord Ashcroft’s tweets and website are actually becoming a good barometer (in the same way eurobarometer is for the EU) have strongly shown ‘the public’ to be opposed. MPs seemed genuinely reticent themselves, but had a clearer eye on a public who wouldn’t stand for 2003 again. So, no matter that a strong and clear document is published from the JIC, based on very strong JIO analysis, it didn’t have 100% tags on it (and it couldn’t have.. it was intelligence assessment), and so it wasn’t good enough for the post-Iraq public. Cameron isn’t Blair, but he got treated as if he was.

Bringing back Parliament to anoint action: 

Under prerogative powers Cameron didn’t need to ask Parliament, but he wanted approval. It’s difficult to gauge whether the ‘I’m seeking a rubber stamp’ urked Members or not. Either way, it was a self-inflicted wound, but it is inconceivable for Parliament not to have been involved in some form, even though the action contemplated seems to have been very small. There was also unease about the language used by the Foreign Secretary and luminaries like Malcolm Rifkind that we didn’t need a UN mandate – technically, not, but difficult to manage the political fall-out.

Pottery Barn rules: 

You break it, you own it. After Iraq and Afghanistan I don’t think there’s a huge appetite to be involved in longer conflicts or reconstruction. I don’t think the PM’s position that we wouldn’t be involved into the medium to long term was particularly tenable. I think MPs agreed.


The problem of blowback was addressed in the JIC report. They assessed it very differently to me (and I’m always happy to concede), but there are lingering concerns about radicalising new sections of the community here, and abroad.


The public have a higher regard for Cameron than his own back-benchers, who seem to variously see him as too Hawkish, too Dovish and/or just not quite right. A Thatcher in full cry wouldn’t have lost this vote. It’s a terrible slight on his political authority. Michael Gove might have been cursing rebels, but it provides him with a chance to topple Cameron before the election.

As many colleagues have pointed out though, this was not a reason to vote the measures down…


It’s difficult to see the UK as being isolationist when it gives so much money away in aid… but that’s how people like Lord Ashdown painted it. I think it’s the East of Suez debate, without the debate. Sensible spheres of influence, engagement where it makes sense. Ultimately, action will occur because President Obama set down a red line, and Syria crossed it. There has to be a response  or the authority of the US is questioned. Luckily for the Prime Minister the American administration don’t seem to have taken the news too badly, which means that their military response is likely to be limited and speedy.

None of this does anything to help the people of Syria, of course – not intervening, nor not intervening. It’s time – for once – for the UN to actually step up.

Whilst I didn’t agree with military action in this case, as per my previous posting, I don’t think Mr Cameron lost his vote for the ‘right reasons’, and it sets the decision to go to war now firmly with Parliament, where it –  perhaps-  should always have been.


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