"What have we done?” I have been asked that question by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs since the Commons voted to block military action by Britain in Syria a week ago.
The mood at Westminster has changed markedly since. Many MPs now regret the outcome and want the Commons to revisit the issue. Some claim the vote does not necessarily show a majority against UK involvement in military strikes.
They point out that 490 MPs voted to start a process that could lead to military action, but the slightly different government and opposition motions meant neither was passed. Only 52 MPs voted against using force in any circumstances by opposing both motions.
David Cameron did not expect such a humiliation. Ed Miliband, the accidental victor, did not want or expect to defeat the Government. He wanted to send a message to voters that he is “not Blair” but did not intend to close the door to UK military action, as Mr Cameron has now done. “We were relying on the Tory whips to win the vote and the Tories were relying on us to support them,” one Labour insider admitted.
The Shadow Cabinet expected Mr Miliband to trumpet the concessions he won from Mr Cameron and support the Government. But after a summer in which the Tories spent attacking him as “weak”, Mr Miliband decided not to risk a messy split in which many Labour MPs would have defied him by voting against military strikes.
Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, was noticeably less keen on intervention than Mr Miliband in their private meetings with Mr Cameron, according to ministers. “Douglas steered Ed away from it,” one Labour source conceded.
Mr Cameron’s dramatic defeat brought an end to a political silly season dominated by Labour grumbling about Mr Miliband. Initially, he looked strong for halting the “rush to war”, Mr Cameron weak because he could not deliver his own MPs. But some Labour MPs feel their revitalised leader got a bit carried away; this week he raised the bar for approving UK military strikes even higher. Some Labour backbenchers fear their party will be blamed if the Assad regime carries out another chemical weapons attack. “Who would look strong and weak then?” they ask.
Senior Tories admit their summer momentum has stalled but insist that Syria will not decide the next election. They claim their script about Mr Miliband as “weak” and “unfit to be prime minister” is now just as valid. “He was too weak to stand up to his own MPs,” said one Tory strategist.
Meanwhile, there was relief in Toryland today when the GMB’s decision to cut its funding to Labour put the spotlight back on to the party’s links with the unions. There’s nothing the Tories love more than reminding voters of the link. It fits neatly with their other line of attack: “same old Labour”.
But the Tories should not count their chickens. If the GMB’s move is copied by other unions, it could land Labour with a financial crisis and yet also bring Mr Miliband a political dividend. The voters would notice he is standing up to the unions, not caving into them. In other words, showing strength not weakness, a Clause IV moment he did not seek, perhaps another accidental triumph that shows his party is not “same old Labour.”
One lesson from the Syria vote fiasco is that the Tories should not underestimate Mr Miliband. They should not underestimate his determination to win his battle with the unions either.