Syrian crisis: Miliband well placed to benefit
Eddie Ford examines the impact on British politics of the Syrian crisis
Under the impact of the August 21 chemical attack in a Damascus suburb, it was definitely not business as usual for David Cameron. No, instead, he recalled parliament early on August 29 to approve the principle of “limited” military action against the Assad regime. Cameron claimed during the debate that it was “highly likely” that the Syrian dictator was guilty of the Damascus attack, publishing a scanty, three-page report (the final page a mere summary) by the Joint Intelligence Committee - the latter concluding that there were “no plausible alternative scenarios” to that of the Assad government being behind the attack.
Armed with the JIC assessment, Cameron righteously lectured the Commons about how the world cannot silently stand by and allow 100 years of international law to be flouted, and all manner of other humbug. Ostensibly Cameron’s “limited” action aimed to remove or ‘downgrade’ the Syrian regime’s capacity to deploy chemical weapons again (though exactly how was a mystery). Forgivably in some ways, in a classic Freudian slip, Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, twice referred to the urgent need to prevent “Saddam Hussein” from using chemical weapons. Anyway, there was meant to be a second vote some four or five days later actually authorising military action, once the UN inspectors had left Damascus and outlined their preliminary findings - presumably, or hopefully, pinning the blame on Assad.
Then we had another unpredictable event - it all went tits up for Cameron. He lost the vote, even after a Labour amendment calling for more “compelling evidence” and a “stronger commitment” to UN involvement - the actual first vote of the night - was easily defeated by 332 votes to 220. Most people at that point would have thought Cameron was on the home run. Yet the government motion still fell by 272 votes to 285, an opposition majority of 13, after 30 Tory MPs - mainly from the xenophobic wing of the party - and nine Liberal Democrats rebelled to vote alongside Labour.
Just for a second there were thoughts of a no-confidence motion. Michael ‘Gradgrind’ Gove, the education secretary, could not contain himself and shouted “Disgrace!” at the Tory rebels and got into a foul-mouthed row with the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy - outraged that Labour MPs were “cheering as though it were a football match they’d just won” when news was coming in of a phosphorus attack on a Syrian school (Israel has used white phosphorus shells). Hammond hinted that there could be another Commons vote if circumstances “change very significantly”. Getting no marks for originality, Boris Johnson in the pages of The Daily Telegraph drew a comparison with the appeasement of Nazi Germany and suggested there was “scope” for a second vote on the issue, as “new evidence” against the Assad regime emerged. And Cameron himself warned MPs on September 4 that the Syrian people face “Armageddon” if the ‘red lines’ drawn up by Obama were not enforced.
But there is absolutely no chance of Cameron acting unilaterally - the political cost would be too high. He would go down in history as the man who ignored the will of parliament and cocked a snook at the British public. A Daily Express poll taken on August 30 showed that only 8% supported an “immediate” strike on Syria and that 41% were against military intervention under “any circumstances”. And an ICM opinion poll on September 2 found that 71% thought parliament made the “right decision”, a finding that was broadly in line with other opinion polls asking similar questions.
There have been claims to the effect that Cameron has been fatally undermined by the Syria vote, holed beneath the waterline. Such propositions are exaggerated, but nevertheless contain a truth. He has been badly wounded - his authority in the party undermined, at least temporarily.
What is quite incredible though is that Cameron got himself into this mess in the first place - or, rather, more exactly, was allowed to get into such a situation. Any half-decent chief whip - sorry, Sir George Young - would have told Cameron exactly what the parliamentary balance of forces were and then outlined exactly what was needed. Like a whole series of protracted negotiations and possible concessions to disaffected Tory backbenchers and dubious Liberal Democrats. Instead, or so it seems from what we can gather, Cameron charged into battle without realising that not all his troops were behind him. Indeed, that some were about to mutiny.
Even more incredibly, some government ministers did not vote for the motion. International development secretary Justine Greening and Mark Simmonds, the Africa minister, apparently both “failed to hear” the division bell, which sounds to let MPs know it is time to vote. Furthermore, Kenneth Clarke, minister without portfolio, was unable to attend because of “logistical family reasons”.
Following the August 29 fiasco, the whips office will be purged - Sir George destined to find a new career in the House of Lords, which no doubt will best serve his talents. There is certain to be a cabinet reshuffle - soon. Jesse Norman MP has already been sacked as a government advisor after abstaining.
But, of course, every time you purge you make fresh enemies, not friends - you just promote your current friends at the expense of your former friends. Meaning you are storing up political trouble for the future - the assassins wait. As for the Tory rebels, they are mainly drawn - apart from a few inveterate ‘peaceniks’ who tend to vote against military action - from the nationalistic, ‘Ukip-friendly’, wing of the party - essentially little Englanders in their outlook. Let the damned foreigners get on with their own funny business.
It would be churlish to deny that Labour leader Ed Miliband came out well from the vote, his positioning completely wrong-footing Cameron - though it is an overstatement to say he played a “blinder”, as sycophantically claimed by the Socialist Unity blog.1 Predictably, sections of the Tory press have attacked Miliband for being cynical, shifty, pulling a fast one, being a friend of Assad, and nonsense like that. Amusingly, sounding like a particularly purple episode of The thick of it, a government source quoted in The Independent expresses anger at Miliband’s part in derailing Cameron’s planned Commons vote and overall war plans: “Number 10 and the foreign office think Miliband is a f****** c*** and a copper-bottomed s***.”2 Downing Street claims, quite plausibly, that Miliband gave Cameron the impression he would back him right up until 5.15pm on the evening before the vote - then changed his mind by slapping in his amendment in a “bad-tempered” phone-call between him and the prime minister. What a bounder.
All hypocritical cant, of course. After all, is not a leader of the opposition meant to oppose the government? Still, whatever the exact manoeuvres around the Syria vote - fair or foul - Miliband’s stature will improve once the dust has settled. Indeed you can bet with reasonable confidence that his personal ratings will start to creep up from the miserable position they now occupy.
Equally important, his position within the party will be strengthened - unlike Cameron. OK, some Blairites are unhappy - mumbling about “irresponsible” leadership, the “damage” done to the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US imperialism, etc. Yet that is a positively welcome development for Miliband, creating distance between himself and the poisoned chalice that is the Blair legacy. And it was done at a very low political cost, merely by occupying the ‘anti-war’ space in British politics previously occupied by Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems (no matter how unjustified). If something extra happens in Syria - always a possibility - he still has plenty of wriggle room to agitate for a ‘limited’ strike if it has full UN backing, and so on.
In a slight ironic twist of fate, Cameron has been partially rescued from accusations of weak and ineffective leadership by the fact that Barack Obama has decided to do a Cameron - ie, go to Congress for a vote. Given that you do not have a whip system in the US and many members of both houses are opposed to military action - for various contradictory and conflicting reasons - there is the chance that Obama can do a Cameron in a different way and lose the vote. As I write this article, Obama seems to be winning the backing of key figures in Congress for a 90-day ‘window’ for US military action against Syria - sceptical Republicans beginning to like the tougher-sounding White House rhetoric hinting that the “limited and proportional” strikes are actually part of a “broader strategy” to topple Bashar al-Assad. Regime change, in other words.
Responding to the imperialist war threat, the Stop the War Coalition promptly organised a couple of timely demonstrations at the weekend. However, what was not so praiseworthy - though typical - was the ridiculously dishonest reporting of the demonstrations. Therefore Socialist Worker claimed that 5,000 people attended the demo in London and 300 in Glasgow - even though the photos accompanying the article, if you look at them for more than a few seconds, clearly told a very different story.3 More like 3,000 and 100 respectively.
In fact those figures are no disgrace, given that the demonstration was called just a few days before and, more to the point, under conditions where there will be no UK strike. Under these circumstances, it is inevitable that the wind will be taken out of the sails of the anti-war movement - you can hardly rush around shouting ‘Not in our name’ when no-one’s name is being invoked.
More worryingly some in the STWC - eg, Kate Hudson - are claiming responsibility for breaking the “bloody links” between Britain and US imperialism. This is delusional. France might now be called America’s “oldest ally. But, be warned, the UK is still credited with being America’s “closest ally”. And because the mass anti-war sentiment is politically unorganised it is ripe for the picking. Nigel Farage and Ukip noticeably opposed a Syrian intervention. However, the chances are that it will be Miliband who will gain the most.
The Labour leadership certainly feared another mass anti-war movement. But, given the STWC at a very low ebb, and the general weakness of the left, it will be relatively easy for Labour to appropriate anti-war sentiments for its own advantage - quite grotesque when you remember that it has been consistently pro-imperialist from its very inception. Labour can enjoy, for the time being anyway, presenting itself as the ‘anti-war’ party, now that the Lib Dems can no longer claim that mantle.
2. The Independent August 29.
3. Socialist Worker August 31 2013.