The Conservative Commons Whips Office will remember David Cameron’s humiliation over air strikes against the Assad regime, but some of its newer members may have the politicking that led up to it, which was as follows. Barak Obama asked the Prime Minister for support for military action. Downing Street calculated that Ed Miliband would back strikes, and was prepared to push them through the Commons with Labour’s backing – and take any consequent revolt from Tory backbenchers on the chin.
Miliband turned tail in an afternoon, frightened off endorsing bombing by the hostile reaction of some Shadow Cabinet members and Labour MPs – a legacy in part of the psychological damage wreaked on Labour by the Iraq War. Support for the operation collapsed, and that was the end of it.
But it was not only Miliband and Labour that destroyed Cameron’s position. The Conservative backbench reaction against the plan went much wider and deeper than Number 10 had anticipated. It had mis-read the degree of scepticism about the proposal among Tory MPs, and was not helped by Parliament being in recess at the time of the decision to push it: some of the Whips were on holiday, like many other MPs, and the office was thus unsighted.
When they did their ring-round, they were struck by the breadth and depth of the sheer lack of backbench and Ministerial support. George Osborne, whose interventionist instincts are as strong as ever, has has described the decision not to support the Prime Minister as “one of the worst decisions the House of Commons has ever made”. He will have been thinking when he said that of his own colleagues as well as Miliband and Labour: he is known to have been dismayed by the extent of private doubt among Government loyalists as well as that of public opposition from backbench rebels.
Today’s Sunday Times (£) reports that half Labour’s Shadow Cabinet may support air strikes in Syria this time round – not against Assad, of course, but against ISIS. The paper names six of its members – including Tom Watson, the party’s new deputy leader – plus a majority of its foreign affairs team and at least two of its defence spokesmen, though the paper has only a single source for its story, who is presumably in favour of bombing in any event.
We have been edging closer to a new Commons vote for some time. First came the news that our air force has been involved in military action; then Cameron’s announcement that drones were used to kill Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin; then the release of RAF air strike figures.
Under Harriet Harman’s interim leadership, Labour moved closer to the Government’s position. It would probably be able to peel off some votes from the party’s MPs if Jeremy Corbyn, as expected, opposes further strikes. But the Prime Minister will need to be less careless with his own MPs, in this new Tory-majority Parliament, than he was with them in this last one – even if most agree with the view of this site and Party member readers that action is as necessary now as it was not two years ago.