Last week’s historic vote was a blow for Cameron. But how did it impact the other parties?
There is no getting away from the fact that the defeat in Parliament last week was a huge personal set back for the Prime Minister. Cameron has been outspoken about the crisis in Syria, and joined with France to try and get the EU sanctions on sending arms to rebels lifted.
For the Tories in general though, there was a deeper trend at play on the decision whether or not to support action. The Conservative Party has traditionally been the party of defence, and the party of Britain making its voice heard on the world stage. The average Tory is a little older than most, and grew up at a time when Britain was still a Great Power in the old sense of the term. For them, Britain retains a historic duty to protect the weak and face down bullies and tyrants. This almost romantic view of British destiny is a throw back to a simpler era of goodies and baddies, of a selfless Britain sacrificing blood and treasure for the good of humanity.
However there were a sizable number of Tory MPs who took a more cautious, more nuanced approach. For them, the calculations were no less geopolitically inspired, even if a difficult conclusion was reached. By attacking Assad, we would be in effect flying air support for the very people we’ve been battling in Afghanistan. This ‘better the devil you know’ approach is not new for the Tories. Look at their support for Saddam when he was battling Iran, and for the military coup in Egypt.
Add to this noxious brew Cameron’s now near constant low intensity conflict with his own insurgency; the awkward squad. The Right of the Tory Party have bristled under Cameron’s leadership for some time, and now feel they have sufficient numbers to cause trouble without fear of being picked off by the Whip’s Office. For some, Syria was a useful excuse to give Dave a kicking in return for the betrayal over Equal Marriage, defence cuts, vacillation on Europe and being too open to Lib Dem advice on social issues.
Labour presents the most interesting of the four parties on the issue of Syria. The simplistic answer for why Ed Miliband opposed action is that no vote for action in the Middle East was going to occur in isolation from the spectre of Iraq. But this is to ignore Libya, for which action was supported by Labour. Rather, there were two factors that influenced Ed’s calculations last week.
The first was public opinion. Miliband will have been briefed that the public was overwhelmingly against any UK military involvement in Syria. For a leader who’s personal poll ratings yo-yo between weak and laughable, this was just the issue he needed to show how in touch he was with teh man on the street, as opposed to the Eton Set in government.
Ed Miliband also had to content with the divisions in his own party. The humanitarian interventionist wing of the party didn’t survive the end of Blair in any meaningful way, yet Labour still see themselves as abiding by Robin Cook’s mantra of foreign policy having an Ethical Dimension. But in seeking to put daylight between himself and the Government, Miliband may have backed himself into a corner. As Dan Hodges wrote in The Telegraph last week, Miliband risks being labelled as the Man Who Killed Syria. Not only did he slam the brakes on British involvement, but he may have inadvertently done the same for the US, by forcing Obama to go before Congress with no guarantee of backing. The nightmare scenario now facing Labour is that they if they are seen to have thwarted a Western response to Assad’s savagery, then every subsequent gassing or regime air strike will be laid at their door. Ethical foreign policy
On the face of it, the Lib Dems should have had the easiest time off all the big three parties. They were famously against the invasion of Iraq, and are seemingly united over Syria. However the Lib Dem leadership has to contend with the fact that they are in a coalition. Clegg and a diminishing group of loyalists had the unenviable task of trying to drum up support for a vague notion that not even every Tory wanted.
And much like Labour, the Lib Dems are always keen to portray themselves as the Good Guys of British politics. This is a difficult trick to pull of when your options are a quasi fascist regime or a motley crew of jihadists and cannibalistic thugs. Their strategy, as it turns out, has been to astutely stay quiet and let Cameron act as the lightening rod for a change.
As on so many issues, UKIP benefit from not having to be called upon to see how their policies play out in practice. Of all the parties, UKIP have been by far the most vehemently opposed to any intervention in Syria, even opposing sending aid to select rebel groups. Indeed, there are even some in the party, this author included, who would rather have seen British support for Assad in the hope of ending the war, crushing Islamists, and prising Syria out of the grip of Iran and Russia.
UKIP policy on Syria will doubtless be met with derisive snorts and much eye-rolling from politicos, but their line is the most in keeping with public opinion. This is hardly surprising for the party that positions itself as the party for people who don’t ‘do’ politics. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss them out of hand. As immigration has shown, UKIP can influence debate far and above what their membership numbers should justify.