In the Commons Ed Miliband was the hero and David Cameron was humiliated, but the tragedy in Syria is no nearer resolution
1. Iraq casts a long shadow, but this wasn’t all about Iraq. It’s true that for MPs who have spent the 10 years since the Iraq vote explaining why they supported Tony Blair, this was the moment to strike back.
But it’s much more profound than that. Because of Iraq, David Cameron had promised to allow parliament a veto on going to war back in 2010. He had even committed himself to repealing the royal prerogative, the executive powers which enable him to bypass parliament, though he hasn’t, yet.
As a result, parliament had the power to deny him authority, even in a relatively modest and constrained form, to strike against Assad. The jury’s out on when that last happened: some say 1782 and the American war of independence.
2. Iraq’s long shadow, part two: Iraq is a very good reason for being wary, but intervening in Iraq looks relatively uncomplicated compared with trying to decide how to act in a way that would protect human life in Syria. It was the complexity of the circumstances as well as the all too vivid lessons from Iraq of the unintended consequences of intervention that frightened MPs. But parliament has not abandoned faith in Britain as a player on the world stage. It’s not much more than two years since MPs backed the Libya intervention.
3. Cameron has been humiliated, and it showed in his face and voice at the end of last night’s debate, as he spat out the phrase, “we get it”. Certain backbenchers (step forward David Davis) and reportedly some in cabinet too, were very unhappy. Justine Greening, international development secretary, will have to have a better story than “didn’t hear the division bell” to explain why she didn’t vote. But though there’s a strong case against him – a prime minister not in control of his own defence and foreign policy is a big charge – it looks as if the strategy will be to take it on the chin and hope an improving economy will float him off the rocks. And there isn’t a challenger poised in the wings.
4. Ed Miliband was the hero of the hour, clapped when he went into the whip’s office after the vote, and he played a hugely important role in throwing the handbrake on Cameron’s ambitions. But he too stumbled and seemingly misread his party first, and his amendment proposing the UN route was also defeated, and he lost a good shadow minister, Jim Fitzpatrick, over it. This was partly a revolt of the sans culottes: leadership on both sides was brought up sharply.
5. And the tragedy in Syria is no nearer resolution. It offers no comfort now, but it is high time the conventions on war were updated. Part of the problem in rallying a response to the chemical weapon strike is that so many hundreds of thousands of people have been killed without recourse to so-called weapons of mass destruction, and now it seems government forces are dropping napalm-like bombs, also not banned by any UN convention. Work should start at once on new conventions to protect citizens from wars as they are fought now.
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