It is difficult following the hourly changes of mood, changes of mind and final decisions from outside the Commons, when it is having one of its active and important couple of days.
Thursday was a good day for our democracy. We were discussing something of major importance. We, the UK Parliament could make the decision without having to genuflect to EU law. The government rightly understood it had to win the consent of the House before it could embark on any course of action toward Syria. MPs were well aware of the sceptical mood in the country towards another Middle Eastern military commitment.
The context is the disagreement between Mr Hague and many Conservative MPs prior to the recess over arming the rebels in Syria. We urged the government in private and public not to do this. 81 of us wrote to the Prime Minister before the recess saying Parliament should be recalled if the government wished to change its policy on Syria and arm the rebels or intervene in the conflict.
When the recall came it was clear there had been a major rethink by the government. They were prepared to say they now agreed with us in many respects. They ruled out arming the rebels. They even ruled out seeking to intervene in the conflict in any way to change the balance of forces. They said now their sole wish was to retaliate on behalf of the world community against the use of chemical weapons. We welcomed the change of approach on the policies of not arming the rebels and not seeking to change the balance of forces on the ground.
The Conservative party did not have time for the normal consultations and exchanges over the new policy of retaliation. By the time most MPs arrived back at Westminster the government looked confident it could secure support for a limited military intervention because the PM had briefed the Leader of the Opposition and he seemed to support the initiative. He had been briefed that it would be a legal and proportionate response. With Labour support the Conservative and Lib Dem leaderships did not need to worry too much about their backbenchers. Clearly legal advice had been taken, which had indicated other types of military intervention posed legal difficulties.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, just before Thursday’s debate, Labour announced they could not after all support the government. The idea of tabling a motion which gave the government full power to undertake military intervention was no longer possible, as there were too many potential rebels to leave any chance of success. The government set about the task of drafting a motion which could win back Labour, and at the same time might be more palatable to maybe 100 Conservative backbenchers and 20 Lib Dems who were not happy with the idea of using force.
The government hit on the idea that the crucial vote to authorise force would be delayed until next week, after the UN Inspectors had reported. That reduced the numbers of rebels considerably for the first vote, but did not satisfy Mr Miliband. As Thursday wore on more and more Conservative MPs declared privately to Ministers and whips or in public and in the Commons chamber that they could not vote for any motion next week to authorise force. By mid evening it was clear the case for using force had been lost by a large margin. The more the government worked at persuading colleagues to support them, the more MPs declared they were against the use of force. The final vote on the government’s bland motion looked decisive from outside, but in practice the policy many of us disliked had died hours before as the numbers of MPs against force built up rapidly. We already knew before 10 o clock there would be no further motion to authorise force.
Some MPs and commentators still think Ministers can take the country to war without the support of Parliament. It is true that some past wars have taken place without a Commons vote. There was no Commons vote because the Commons was united in favour. Whilst technically Ministers can sign Treaties and issue orders to our armed forces, in practice they can only do so when they know they have the confidence and the majority of the Commons behind them. On Thursday Parliament reminded any future government that in these weighty matters Ministers can only proceed when MPs let them.
If a government wishes to take the country to war, it needs more consent than for a civil policy, not less, given the sacrifices required of many from such a decision. If the Opposition is not in agreement the government can still do it, but it needs to have the full support of its own side and to understand the risks that it could split the country over such a crucial matter. It is best only to do it when all main parties are united, to give the best possible chance of success. Officers can then command their troops safe in the knowledge that whoever they voted for probably agreed with their action and purpose. If A war begins with a major row at home it does give the military personnel a great send off.