Donald Macintyre's Sketch: At least 2003’s gung-ho mood was gone from the Commons


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The anxious mood in which Parliament agreed to go to war today was summed up well by Frank Dobson. “Nobody… can be certain the policies we are being asked to endorse will succeed,” said the Labour veteran, adding that given the history of Western intervention in the Middle East the “odds look as though we won’t”.

“And yet, I find myself probably going to vote for the motion tonight.”

Dobson – explaining that a suffering Iraq was “entitled to call upon the rest of us. They are faced by a genocidal outfit” – spoke for many. Few who voted for air strikes did so as bleakly as Sir Edward Leigh, the Tory who warned that “never have so few been asked by so many to achieve so much with no clear aim in sight.” But for all the castigations of Isis (“medieval” and “barbaric”) there was mercifully little of the gung-ho. It was as if by publicly fearing the worst the MPs could allow themselves privately to hope for the best.

Two very different ghosts haunted the Commons. One was the late Robin Cook, whom Ed Miliband carefully name-checked. To maximise the backing among his own party, deeply scarred by the 2003 Iraq invasion, for the “wrenching decision” to go to war, Miliband recalled that Cook – who resigned in 2003 – had said British interests were “best protected by multilateral agreement and a world order governed by rules”. This, Miliband insisted, was what the Commons was now being invited to endorse.

The other was St Thomas Aquinas, whom no one mentioned. But, consciously or not, much of Cameron’s speech was an effort to show that air strikes fulfilled Aquinas’s concept of a just war: not only were they in British interests and part of a “comprehensive plan”, but that plan had “moral justification”.

If Iraq was the nominal theme, Syria was the underlying one – a point noticed by George Galloway, who teetered as usual between the brilliant and the deranged in his opposition to strikes. “The words on the motion are about bombing Iraq, but there is a consensus in here that we will soon be bombing Syria.”

Miliband’s caution on Syria was not shared by Labour’s Peter Hain, who argued both for strikes and for a peace process which involved negotiating with a Syrian president who was “never going to be defeated militarily”. Ken Clarke said it was “unrealistic” to launch strikes in Iraq and not Syria. Clarke who opposed the 2003 invasion, supported the “symbolic” British intervention but concluded: “No genius will solve this problem in a very short time”.

Few will disagree.