“You are letting down America,” David Cameron told Ed Miliband in a heated telephone call on Wednesday evening after the Labour leader told him that his party might not support the Government in the Commons vote on Syria the following night.
Mr Cameron also accused Mr Miliband of “siding with [Sergei] Lavrov”, the Foreign Minister of Russia, Syria’s ally. The jibes did not work. Nor did the PM’s later attempt to secure Labour’s backing by watering down the Government’s Commons motion to promise a second vote to approve UK involvement in military action against Syria. This provoked claims by Downing Street that Mr Miliband was “playing politics” because he could not vote for British participation without splitting his own party down the middle.
Mr Miliband held two meetings with the Prime Minister, along with Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, and Douglas Alexander, his Labour shadow. There were also a number of phone calls between the Prime Minister and the Labour leader as Mr Cameron tried to ensure his support.
Labour sources claim the party was consistent throughout the talks, saying Mr Miliband warned Mr Cameron at one Downing Street session: “This is not a helter-skelter process.”
Mr Miliband believes the Prime Minister’s mistake was to promise President Barack Obama UK involvement in military strikes this weekend before lining up enough support among Conservative and Labour MPs.
According to Labour, Mr Cameron was also “too stubborn and slow” to recognise the importance of waiting for the United Nations weapons’ inspectors to report before approving strikes. “This was all about Obama’s timetable,” one Labour source said.
But the Tories and Liberal Democrats have a different version of events. They claim Mr Miliband’s line changed dramatically between Tuesday, when his whole demeanour was “positive”, and Wednesday, when he pulled the rug out from under Mr Cameron, paving the way for the PM’s spectacular defeat on Thursday.
The Prime Minister first detected trouble ahead when Mr Miliband phoned him at 5.15pm on Wednesday to raise concerns he had not mentioned in a face-to-face meeting a few hours earlier. “It was a bit odd,” one No 10 insider said.
Labour denies that anything changed. But some Labour insiders say that Mr Miliband’s initially supportive noises played badly among his MPs, forcing him to adopt a tougher line. Diane Abbott’s warning that she would resign as shadow Public Health minister rather than vote for military action fuelled speculation that other frontbenchers would do the same. “We had a wobble,” one said. “Ed wanted to ensure maximum unity.”
When the parliamentary Labour Party met in a crowded Commons committee room on Thursday lunchtime, more than 20 MPs queued up to endorse Mr Miliband’s tougher line and only two or three spoke in favour of intervention in Syria.
The die was cast: the Labour leader, whatever his own initial instincts, could not deliver his MPs’ support for a motion which raised the prospect of military action.
Relations between Mr Cameron and his independent-minded backbenchers have improved in recent months, which may have lulled him into a false sense of security.
There was, some ministers claim, “a disastrous intelligence failure” by Tory whips. When one senior MP warned Downing Street – accurately – that 30 Tories would oppose the Government, aides seemed surprised. During the Commons debate, Cameron loyalists put the figure at 20, which would have allowed him to avoid defeat.
The decision to recall MPs from their summer break rather than wait for their scheduled return on Monday – presumably with the aim of allowing military strikes this weekend – contributed to the shambles.
“There were a number of MPs who did not attend the Commons vote, either for personal reasons or because the logistics were impossible,” one No 10 source admitted, insisting the absences were agreed with the Whip’s Office.
The passions were not only felt by opponents of military action. When the crushing and unexpected defeat was announced in the Commons chamber, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary and a hawk on Syria, shouted “You are a disgrace” at Tory and Liberal Democrat rebels.
On returning early from his holiday in Cornwall on Tuesday to handle the crisis, Mr Cameron told aides they would have to tackle “the Iraq factor”. He repeatedly tried to point out that Syria was different, but the parallels were spooky – UN weapons inspectors, legal doubts, intelligence reports among them. “This is not Iraq,” Mr Clegg told anxious Liberal Democrat activists in an email.
A TV journalist asked Mr Clegg whether Britain was going to attack Iraq. Even the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, referred to Saddam Hussein on Newsnight instead of Bashar al-Assad.
“We tried to move on but it felt like we were stuck in a time warp in 2003,” one Cameron loyalist admitted today.
Syria still faces US air strikes, but the country’s President will be glad there will be no British bombers overhead.
Russia’s President can worry a little bit less about being in a minority when he hosts the G20 summit of world leaders next month, where Syria is sure to be on the agenda.
Ten years ago, Tony Blair was Washington’s favourite European leader and the French were the “surrender monkeys”. But Hollande can order French air strikes without asking parliament.
Shadow Health Minister looked on the point of resigning rather than support military intervention in Syria. She still has her job.
… and the losers
The US President already had public scepticism about military action to contend with. He was made to look all the more isolated after the scathing headline in a New York paper: “The British Aren’t Coming! The British Aren’t Coming!”
Losing your temper and shouting “You’re a disgrace” at MPs from your own party, as the Education Secretary reportedly did late on Thursday night, is not the way to stack up support in a future leadership contest.
The International Development Secretary missed the second, more important vote because she was in a room not far from the debating chamber, not listening out for the bell.
Sir George Young
It was the Chief Whip’s job to forewarn the PM of possible defeat, to win over waverers and make sure there was a maximum turnout for the crucial vote. He may not be Chief Whip much longer.
Ten years ago, his charm and persuasiveness won MPs over to the idea of going to war in the Middle East. This weekend, his long shadow put them off.