By the waters of Leynarvatn, J.Alfred Prufrock – MP for Grummidge West, real ale enthusiast, Faroe Islands devotee, Wolves fan and cycle lane maniac – sat down and wept. Or would have done, were his expectations of life greater and his experience of Parliament less. The last streaks of sunset were decorating the Streymoy skyline like a rainbow. Beside him, his Blackberry flickered in the gathering dark.
"PHONE GREG HANDS," it declared. Prufrock groaned aloud at this intrusion from the world outside – this serpent of a message sent to destroy his paradise. He had fled to it five days earlier consumed by sensations of almost unearthly joy. The best part of a week free from constituents! And from Mrs Prufrock, and young Billy Wright Prufrock, and even younger Wilhelmina Wright Prufrock!
I don't mean to suggest for a moment that Prufrock is not the most uxorious of men and dutiful of MPs. But just as some men need drunkenness for release, so Prufrock needs fishing. Now it is to be denied him and his holiday to be cut short. A succession of text messages are summoning him back to the Commons. He must be in the Chamber on Thursday afternoon. At the gates of his Eden a Whip is standing, barring the way and brandishing a sword.
But as I say, public-spiritedness is not extinct in Prufrock. So as he lies by the darkening lake, he turns his mind to Syria, and marshalls his thoughts. Prufrock is neither a foreign affairs expert nor an especially original thinker. This is excellent – at least for our purposes, since he is therefore not unlike most of his colleagues, any more than he is untypical in what drives him: namely, a mix of fear, duty, greed, ambition, patriotism and, above all, the urge to save his seat.
By happy accident or Archemedian inspiration, Prufrock begins more or less where he should do. First things first: was Assad responsible for the chemical attack in Ghouta? David Cameron and William Hague will be in difficult position, to put it mildly, were MPs first to vote for missile strikes on the basis of their assurances, and it then emerge later that rebels were responsible. (RING JOHN BARON, his Blackberry proclaims.)
Prufrock thinks on. A lot of MPs will need a lot of persuading – given the long shadow of Iraq – that the regime is guilty. There will be a lot of noise and fuss about the United Nations (from who care about it; from those who don't care for Cameron, and from members of both groups) and about legality (ditto). Much will depend on Dominic Grieve – to whom Prufrock had once confided his view that Britain should leave the ECHR in a moment of drunken vulnerablity.
The Attorney-General had started in his seat as though his interlocutor had thrust a finger up his bottom. This brief encounter had helped to shape Prufrock's view of him. On the one hand, he didn't read Grieve as a man who would compromise his view of the rule of law. On the other, he didn't believe the Attorney to be a resigner, either. A form of words based on the Responsibility to Protect will doubtless be found. (PHONE ME NOW. GREG HANDS. YOUR WHIP.)
But how on earth is the responsibility to protect furthered by zapping a few deserted Presidential palaces and military airfields? Prufrock can imagine those Tory MPs ill-disposed to Cameron or to military action or to both making a meal of the question – not to mention of any disputed facts and dubious legalities. The backbench conspirators who have crawled into their box since May will be looking for a chance to crawl back out of it.
What about the effect on nervous Conservative MPs of UKIP coming out against intervention? (HELLO. THIS IS NICK WATT FROM THE GUARDIAN. WE ARE CONDUCTING A SURVEY OF CONSERVATIVE BACKBENCH OPINION ON SYRIA. PLEASE RING.) Nick Clegg may be signed up to a missile strike, but will his backbenchers stand with him? After all, they won't have forgotten their party's vote-boosting opposition to the Iraq War.
And what will Labour do? Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander will want to avoid being cast onto either a rock or a hard place. The rock will be giving Cameron and Hague carte blanche, and being portrayed as Government stooges. The hard place will be opposing everything Ministers do, and being caricatured as weak in the face of the murderers of children – Labour, the internationalists turned isolationists; Miliband, the dictator's patsy.
Prufrock thinks on. What about the high principles at stake, as well as the low politics? He is, as we have seen, not uncharacteristic of his colleagues. He has no rapport with the party leadership, and feels that the Downing Street officer class has next to no idea how the poor bloody infantry live. But he has no time for the internal opposition, either, and believes that Cameron is doing a near-impossible job in almost impossible circumstances. (WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU? HANDS.)
Prufrock is a kind man, and appalled by reports of children being gassed. He is also a politician (of sorts), and can do the calculations. Cameron and Hague will be asking what signal passivity in the wake of a chemical attack will send to North Korea, with its designs on South Korea; or on Iran's willingness to obtain the bomb, or on China and – especially – Russia's ambitions. They will believe that an isolationist America is a greater danger than an interventionist one.
At the same time, he cannot work out what a missile strike will achieve. (RING ADAM AFRIYIE. URGENT.) Suppose it goes wrong. Suppose civilians are killed. Suppose a chemical weapons depot is hit. (HI. THIS IS JAMES KIRKUP FROM THE TELEGRAPH. WE'RE CONDUCTING A POLL. PLEASE CALL.) Or suppose a few command centres are blown to smithereens. What happens if the regime uses chemical weapons all over again?
Will there then be a succession of Commons votes? And even if there's no further use of chemical weapons, is Parliament being gradually suckered into Syria's civil war – into arming the opposition, a no-fly zone, training rebels, boots on the ground? Has Britain escaped Iraq only to be entangled in Syria? What about the depleted condition of our armed forces? (THIS IS HANDS. RING INSTANTLY OR ABANDON ALL CHANCE OF PROMOTION.)
Prufrock thinks on. And on and on. Voting for a strike carries local risks. His constituents don't want Britain to be entangled in Syria. Support could offer opportunities to an unscrupulous opponent. But memories of the vote may have faded by 2015. And besides, there is a reshuffle coming, and Prufrock has not abandoned all hope of promotion. (HELLO. THIS IS PAUL GOODMAN FROM CONSERVATIVE HOME. WE'RE CONDUCTING A SURVEY INTO PARTY MEMBERSHIP…)
That's my mind made up, Prufrock says to himself. He will tell the Grummidge Trumpet & Clarion that he wants to study the terms of the motion closely – and then quietly vote for it. A final question flickers at the margins of his understanding. What will the terms of the motion be? Will it be non-binding? But if the Commons votes such a motion down, would Cameron dare ignore it then? Isn't Labour likely to abstain, thus ensuring it passes – and maximising Tory rebellion?
He makes to turn his Blackberry off. And as he does so, a last text flashes before his eyes. MSG FRM EASYJET. NO FREE MP FLIGHTS FRM FAROES. RE-ROUTE ECONOMY VIA CARACAS FR £104,855 ONLY. IPSA ADVISES NON-RECLAIMABLE. P.S: YR WHIP G.HANDS HAS FINALISED TERMS, SENDS REGARDS. Amidst the darkness, a cry disturbs the trout and salmon of Streymoy…Eysturoy…Vagar…Sandoy…