In the end, it was not enough. The Prime Minister acquiesced to Labour’s demand for a second parliamentary vote on military action in Syria, to take place after UN inspectors have reported on the chemical attack 10 days ago. But the motion was still rejected. Between the Opposition and no fewer than 39 rebels – 30 of them Conservative – the Coalition tally came up 13 short. If – or, more likely, when – the US goes ahead with air strikes against the Assad regime, Britain will play no part in them.
For the Prime Minister, the outcome is a humiliation. To lose a single Commons vote need not be calamitous. But to lose one on foreign policy is rare, and it has been more than 200 years since a war motion was defeated. (Then, it was Lord North and the US War of Independence.)
Where Mr Cameron failed was in his assessment of the public mood. No matter how much he tried to stress that plans for limited attacks on Syria bore little relationship to the invasion of Iraq, much of the country thinks otherwise. It was left to MPs, on both sides of the House, to articulate those misgivings – as, rightly, they should – and the Prime Minister will pay the price for his misjudgement. Perhaps it should not be so. This is, after all, how parliamentary democracy is meant to work. But Mr Cameron is, nonetheless, humbled at home and weakened abroad. The debacle also exposes, once again, the deep rift in the Tory party, as well as squandering the political advantage from Ed Miliband’s troubled summer.
Because he is not the prime minister, Nick Clegg fares better. But he still does not fare well. As the leader of a party which prided itself on its opposition to Iraq, the Deputy Prime Minister’s support for intervention in Syria was always risky. With the vote now lost, Mr Clegg will – rightly or wrongly – find it harder than ever to counter the allegation that he is a Tory yes-man at odds with the soul of his party.
And what of Ed Miliband? The Labour leader’s performance over the past week has been far from faultless. Although he did, finally, make the right call, there were several days of stumbling equivocation first. He also lost the vote on his amendment to the Government motion. Finally, there is now more credence to Coalition accusations of party-politicking than there was, given that Labour had already forced Mr Cameron’s hand, and yet still voted No.
Outside the Westminster bubble, though, such details count for little. Of the three party leaders, Mr Miliband will benefit the most from this week’s ructions. Most immediately, the charges of weakness that have dogged him over recent months will now recede. More broadly, he will gain much from having shown himself to be on the right side of public opinion – even more so if he can present his stance as all of a piece with, say, his challenge to Rupert Murdoch over the phone-hacking scandal.
The implications of the MPs’ resounding No do not begin and end with domestic politics, however. Those in favour of strikes against Syria warn of dire consequences. Britain’s international stature is now woefully diminished, they claim. Worse, our special relationship with the US is materially damaged. In both cases, such alarums are wildly exaggerated.
It would be unforgivably cock-eyed for Britain to become involved in a foreign conflict simply to defend a notion of our own international influence. The use of chemical weapons is, of course, to be abhorred. But for Parliament to decide that a given military response is inappropriate – in accordance with the majority public view, no less – hardly constitutes weakness. Quite the reverse, in fact.
As regards the special relationship, it is certainly true that the loss of a key member of his putative coalition-of-the-willing leaves the US President in a tighter spot than ever. Equally, such unambiguous evidence that Britain cannot be blindly relied upon must have some effect over the longer term. But to suggest that there is any real animosity towards Mr Cameron, or that the US will now be asking unanswerable questions about Britain’s value as an ally, is to go too far. Not only are the cultural and linguistic ties between our two nations inalienable. Our military and, no less vitally, intelligence links will remain as close as ever. With so few countries similarly placed, how could they not?
With France all set to participate, Barack Obama is not wholly isolated. Judging by the noises from the White House, it seems that – notwithstanding either Britain’s withdrawal or the ambivalence of the American public – the US President proposes to go ahead. Last night, John Kerry may not have stated explicitly that air strikes will happen. But in setting out what he claims to be incontrovertible intelligence linking the Assad regime to the chemical attacks in Damascus, the Secretary of State was surely preparing the ground.
The Independent remains of the view that such a course is precipitous. With no conclusions from chemical-weapons experts on the ground, no UN resolution legitimising action, and no sense of what constitutes success, the plan looks less like an effective military strategy than an attempt to prove that the President’s ill-advised talk of “red lines” was not just empty rhetoric.
Meanwhile, of course, the situation in Syria remains truly appalling. Indeed, within hours of Parliament’s veto, there were reports of a fire-bomb attack on a school near Aleppo. MPs were still right to vote as they did on Thursday. If the nightmare of Iraq taught us anything, it is that intervention in a foreign conflict must be a last resort. But that does not mean it is off the table altogether. If British reticence gives “succour” to Bashar al-Assad, as some were claiming on Thursday night, then he has misunderstood. Not now does not necessarily mean not ever.