Last night’s vote will probably damage David Cameron less than some of the instant reaction suggested. Certainly it was historic. The Government has not been defeated on foreign policy in a House of Commons vote for more than 150 years. However, that is partly because it rarely votes on foreign policy. Indeed, the convention that the Commons should approve the use of military force is a recent one, conceded by an inexperienced Tony Blair in 1998 when he wanted to join the US in a punitive bombing mission in Iraq.
And it is not as if the coalition is an excuse for the Government’s defeat. Despite the Liberal Democrats’ opposition to the Iraq war, Nick Clegg supported military action in Syria with a Blair-like ferocity, urged on behind the scenes by Paddy Ashdown, the former leader who invented liberal interventionism in the Balkans (and who, confusingly, supported the Iraq war).
Yesterday’s vote on Syria was certainly, also, evidence of poor judgement - including about the state of his own party - on the part of the Prime Minister. He announced the recall of Parliament on Tuesday, before he had spoken to Ed Miliband. Presumably informal conversations with the leader of the opposition’s office had established beforehand that Miliband was prepared to “consider” military action, and that he agreed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria “could not be ignored”, which is what he said after he had met Cameron in person on Tuesday afternoon.
But Cameron should not have banked that as an assurance that Labour would support the Government, and, what is more, he should have had a better idea of the unhappiness among Conservative MPs. To have ordered air strikes against the Syrian regime with about one third of his own MPs unsupportive would have been unwise.
In that sense, last night’s defeat saves Cameron from his own mistakes. Ignore the wall-to-wall commentary about the Prime Minister’s “authority” being in tatters. This is just posh journalism’s way of saying it is embarrassing. I remember Tony Blair’s “authority” being repeatedly reported as “draining away”, often by the BBC, for which such phrases are thought to be a way of avoiding overtly partisan commentary. But he carried on as prime minister for four years after the plug was first pulled.
What is important is public opinion. One of the reasons why the Government lost the vote is that MPs can read opinion polls. Intervention in Syria was more unpopular even than that in Libya. And Cameron won’t now launch air strikes against the Assad regime. Most people don’t care about the “humiliation” of losing a vote in the House of Commons. They will say, “Thank goodness for that.”