For all the Prime Minister’s talk of building a consensus, the decision to recall Parliament for an emergency debate about Syria still looked like a move to sanction decisions that had already been made. With all three party leaders taking an apparently similar tone – the use of chemical weapons was to be abhorred and might yet warrant military action by the outside world – David Cameron not unjustifiably hoped that the vote would be easily carried.
Instead, the accord descended into rancour; the Government’s haste to participate in US-led intervention was curbed; and Parliament, so often bemoaned as a whipped and weak talking shop, proved that, when faced with the gravest of decisions, it can still call the executive to heel.
Mr Cameron had anticipated an issue with some of his own MPs. After all, more than 80 of them recently demanded a vote on arming the Syrian rebels, in order that they might say No. With the support of Ed Miliband, though – who had indicated that his party would “consider” backing international action – even a sizeable rebellion over plans for targeted air strikes could be contained, particularly with the Liberal Democrat leadership also on side.
That was on Tuesday. By Wednesday night, however, the Labour leader had had second thoughts and was demanding that the Coalition commit to a second vote, after the UN inspectors now in Damascus had reported their conclusions. Little wonder there was expletive-laden fury in Downing Street. With Labour opposition added to any rebellion by Coalition MPs, there was a real risk the vote might be lost. And so it proved.
The Tories were quick to condemn Mr Miliband’s change of heart as low-down party-politicking. The Labour leader does not escape all criticism. Two days of mixed messages (and resignations threatened by Diane Abbott and delivered by Jim Fitzpatrick) were an unedifying spectacle. But his decision was the right one. With the majority of the public sceptical as to the wisdom of intervention in Syria, the prospect of Britain’s politicians ploughing on regardless was a concerning one. And the all-too familiar feeling of world-changing decisions being rushed through ahead of the facts was hardly less so.
It is impossible for the deliberations over Syria not to evoke Iraq. So they should. The situation may be different in many ways, but there are still lessons that ought to have been learned – not the least of which is the paramount need for legitimacy. Even many who supported the 2003 invasion are outraged by the half-truths and legal two-steps that were used to justify it. By pushing for a decision on Syria before the report on last week’s chemical attacks was even written, the Coalition risked charges of war-mongering that, justified or not, would have been unanswerable.
Mr Cameron might look to the presidential systems of Washington and Paris with a jealous eye. Now that he must wait for the UN inspectors’ conclusions, MPs might as well not have been recalled at all. Except that this week has reminded the rest of us of the inestimable value of Parliament.