Tensely circling each other on Syria today, David Cameron and Ed Miliband were like a warring couple forced to meet but determined not to unleash their pent-up rage because they have too much to lose. Cameron, you felt, was itching to say: “You treacherous bastard. You not only sabotaged my foreign policy last week, but you couldn’t even take a stand one way or the other.” And Miliband to answer: “You authorise your spin doctors to use industrial language about me as if I’m to blame for the full-scale revolt in your own party. It’s pathetic.”
Instead, they masked their mutual irritation behind a kind of high-minded statesmanese. Miliband made little headway asking about a possible negotiating role for Iran. But would Cameron do “everything he can” to persuade G20 members to match Britain’s aid to Syrian refugees. “Of course I will take that action,” replied a testy PM. Cameron repeatedly referred to “our utter revulsion at the chemical weapons attacks” – “Nobody disagrees about our revulsion at the use of chemical weapons” said an equally testy Miliband.
Finally, as if biting his tongue, Cameron said his piece about last week – “I do not think it was necessary to divide the House on a vote that could have led to a vote, but he took the decision that it was” – but not until a stony-faced Miliband had used up his questions and was unable to reply.
Veteran Tory Sir Peter Tapsell, who once worked for Anthony Eden and therefore knows something about ill-starred Middle East military adventures, raised the “Armageddon question” which he would “in an understated form, put to the Prime Minister… If the Americans illegally bombard the Assad forces and Assad legally invites the Russians in to degrade the rebels, what will Nato do?” Given that he was predicting World War III, it’s hard to know what the overstated form of the question was, but it was commendably restrained of Sir Peter not to ask it.
For light relief, Tory Alun Cairns announced that “4 per cent of people believe that Elvis is still alive”; and that was double the percentage who thought Miliband was a “natural leader”. This referred to a YouGov poll, which was indeed deeply depressing for Labour. He didn’t add that Cameron’s own “natural leader” rating in the same poll was a thumping 13 per cent.