Is it possible that David Cameron is a better prime minister than Tony Blair? That seems ludicrous, but it could be that, even at his worst, Cameron is the better man. Thursday’s outcome in the Commons was an immense defeat, not simply because Cameron lost the vote but because he had lost the support of much of Parliament and of his own party, he had lost any instinct for the mood of the country, he had lost the plot.
Rarely has there been such a political own goal or such a self-inflicted calamity. Cameron has rarely shown the most felicitous of political touches, and he has changed tack so often that it’s difficult for him to sound sincere even when he actually believes something. His supporters have winced at the cock-ups and pratfalls over the past three years, culminating in this week’s debacle. If George Osborne’s Budget last year was an omnishambles, Thursday saw a megashambles.
And how splendid that is! Whatever Cameron feels, the rest of us should be overjoyed that Parliament has recovered some of the independence it had cravenly surrendered. The debate itself showed that our legislators are not just the servile automata they seemed to have become, but men and women capable of thinking and speaking for themselves. Before Cameron’s critics won the vote, they had won the argument.
But then that was true of the Commons debate on Iraq in March 2003. It was hard to listen to it at the time, and it’s impossible to reread it now, without feeling that those opposed to the invasion had much the better case, and that the amendment for which 139 Labour MPs voted, along with all the Liberal Democrats and a small but significant number of Tories, saying that “the case for military action against Iraq as yet unproven", was an incontrovertible factual statement.
As everyone says endlessly, the shadow of Iraq hangs over Syria. More exactly, it’s the shadow of Tony Blair -- or an echo, which was heard all the way through the debate. Ten years ago Jack Straw was Foreign Secretary. He has always been a man who would sound shifty if he told you that day follows night, and in Thursday’s debate he was at his slipperiest, least convincing, and least likeable. He said that he still bore “the scars” of Iraq, the same self-pitying language that his colleagues from that time use, as if they were the victims of this crime rather than the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed or mutilated.
He also said there had been a huge “intelligence failure”, at which the Tory Richard Bacon reminded him that the intelligence services had said (although we only learned this later) that their information about Saddam Hussein’s weaponry was “limited, sporadic and patchy”. Knowing that, Blair insisted he had “extensive, detailed and authoritative” intelligence of mass-destructive weaponry. Political mendacity is not the same as intelligence failure.
Look at some others who spoke on Thursday. Sir Gerald Kaufman called Barack Obama a “murderer”. Not so long ago, Kaufman was, in a hotly contested field, perhaps Blair’s single most sycophantic supporter on the Labour benches.
In the autumn of 2002, he wrote a lucid and intelligent essay explaining why an invasion of Iraq would be gravely mistaken, but then, “out of loyalty” to Blair, he voted for a hideously bloody war in which he had said he didn’t believe.
Then there’s William Hague, our present Foreign Secretary, who has unaccountably acquired a reputation as the Palmerston or Grey de nos jours. Leave aside his advocacy of intervention in Syria and look again at what he said in March 2003, in a Commons speech which fawned on Blair and the Americans at once: “We should remember that whenever we really need help, we turn to the United States,” to which he added the preposterous words, “Every serious attempt to advance peace in the Middle East has been advanced under the auspices of the United States of America.”
In the most amusing detail from Thursday evening, we heard that Michael Gove, the fanatically interventionist Education Secretary, had screamed “You’re a disgrace!” at Tory MPs voting against the government, and had had to be physically restrained. Before he entered parliament Gove was a Times journalist, and once vouchsafed, "I can't fight my feelings any more: I love Tony...all I can say looking at Mr Blair now is, what's not to like?" He later said: “If you take the Tony Blair view on foreign policy, in terms of support for democracy abroad, then I certainly agree with that.”
What support for democracy abroad? When the rising began in Cairo in early 2011, Blair popped up on Sky, his friend Rupert Murdoch’s television channel, to say that no pressure should be put on his other great friend President Hosni Mubarak to depart. Mubarak was not democratically elected, although on the other hand he had provided the Blairs with luxurious winter holidays in Egypt.
This July when a coup deposed President Mohamed Morsi, who was, unlike Mubarak, democratically elected, Blair popped up again to endorse the coup. Only this week, he reiterated that “We should support the new government in stabilising the country.” And of course there is his work as public relations officer to Nursultan Nazarbayev, which Blair explained in the deathless words, “The purpose is not to make money. It is to make a difference.” One “difference” is that Nazarbayev has been president of Kazakhstan for more than 20 years, and his elections have been generally condemned as undemocratic frauds.
Now Westminster is abuzz with talk of whether Cameron can survive. Anthony Eden resigned in the wake of he Suez fiasco, Neville Chamberlain resigned in May 1940 after a parliamentary vote he had actually won. It’s not inconceivable that Cameron will have to resign like them. But he did at least say “I’ve got it” after the vote. And if he lacks his penultimate predecessor’s gift for uttering outrageous falsehoods with seeming sincerity, does that make him a worse man?
Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include ‘Yo Blair! Tony Blair’s Disastrous Premiership’, and ‘The Strange Death of Tory England’