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Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Like Robert Walpole in reverse - and just as uncomfortable


David Cameron found himself in exactly the opposite position of his 18th-century predecessor Robert Walpole, who, pushed by a jingoistic public into a war he didn't want, lamented: “They now ring the bells, but soon they will wring their hands.”

Instead Cameron struggled - and failed - today to build what he called the “greatest possible consensus” for military action he wanted, but most of a deeply sceptical public did not. And he learnt the hard way that these days, thanks above all to Iraq, the hand-wringing starts well before the first shot is fired.

Yet left in much the weaker position by his humbling climbdown and in the view of many of his own backbenchers with much the weaker argument, Cameron was probably the more eloquent of the two leaders. He dwelt at some length on the video images of Syrian nerve gas victims and urged the Commons “not to let the spectre of previous mistakes paralyse our ability to stand up for what is right”.

By contrast, Ed Miliband arrived as the hero who had forced that very climbdown. Maybe it was the fact the last 24 hours had robbed the debate of the radioactive significance it might have had. Maybe it was because he was seeking to unite those ready to back a US-led strike and those in his party opposed to one under any circumstances. But his speech was flatter than you might have expected from a man thrust into the role of an international statesman slowing the slide to war.

Mr Cameron, he said, had insisted that a strike would get Britain “further involved in the conflict”. Pressing the case to wait for more evidence of Assad's culpability, he said: “For me that does not rule out military intervention... but I do not think anybody... should be under any illusions about the effect on our relationship to the conflict in Syria.” The point was persuasive, if not Hugh Gaitskell at the peak of his opposition to Suez.  

 Cameron got welcome backbench support from former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who confronted doubts about whether Assad was responsible by citing a prosecution for murder where guilt was not “100 per cent” certain but “beyond reasonable doubt”.

But in the end it was to no avail. an undoubted star  was dissident Tory backbencher Julian Lewis, who said the judgement of the Joint Intelligence Committee was not enough to justify military action and invoked the prelude to the First World War, declaring: “Nobody thought the assassination of an obscure archduke would lead to a world conflagration.”

It was a more  convincing speech, and an inevitably a less flamboyant one, than that of George Galloway who argued - just a little more critical-sounding of Assad than he has been in the past - that the Syrian dictator was “bad” but not “mad” enough to have launched chemical weapons on his own people. Normally Gorgeous's support for any cause is enough to turn most MPs off it. But not even that did the trick today. While it's rare enough for him to speak in the Commons at all, it's rarer still for him to end up on the winning side.