A good day for Parliament


          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.


  1. alan jutson
    September 1, 2013

    Thank you for giving us an insight as to the workings and happenings behind the scenes.

    It now makes rather more sense, than just looking at the reported vote count.

    Still amazes me that so many voted for the motion though, given the background to all of this which you have just outlined.

    Also amazes me that Cameron and Hague had not picked up on this feeling before jumping in with two very large feet.

    Makes you wonder how much else Cameron has misjudged.
    He needs to widen his circle of advisors, or at least listen to some more of his rather more experienced backbenchers, who appear to be far more in touch with the mood of the Country on so many other issues.

    1. matthu
      September 1, 2013

      John, your explanation makes it all the more difficult to understand why the government persisted in trying to impose a three-line whip … perhaps you could elaborate on this.

      Should Obama be trying to impose the equivalent of a three-line whip in Congress?

      1. Hope
        September 1, 2013

        There is the absense of the effect of coalition government in this blog that Cameron forced his party into. Like other issues ie boundary review, energy etc he relies on the Lib Dems who are completely out of touch with reality. I think Hague should go in any reshuffle. He has lost all sense of purpose and effectiveness since the report of him sharing a room with an adviser. It is painful to watch such a talented person become so ineffective and a puppet to the civil service. This was an exercise of poor judgment and arrogance of the extreme by Cameron and his pro EU cohorts.

        Why is the UK paying additional money to the EU for Ashton to give a view from an EU superstate that does not exist and where one of the most influential countries of the EU is banned from participating in such conflicts?

  2. Mike Stallard
    September 1, 2013

    I very much look forward to a similar debate on the Syrian conflict from the EU Hemicircle with Baroness Ashton putting forward her policy (on how to respond ed) on the use of poison gas with children as the deliberate target.

    1. lifelogic
      September 1, 2013

      Indeed that would be interesting, but there is clearly no semblance or even a fake veneer of democracy with the EU & Baroness Ashton and the likes.

      Indeed a good day for Parliament, they are, alas very rare with Cameron. Let us hope Obama follows the UK’s excellent lead and only does things that will improve the position in Syria not make it worse.

    2. Edward2
      September 1, 2013

      Indeed Mike,
      There has been a strange silence from the EU elite and Baroness Ashton in particular.

    3. Leslie Singleton
      September 1, 2013

      Where is or was this “war” you and others talk about? Lobbing in a few missiles from hundreds of miles away is extremely serious, even dishonourable, but not war. It takes two to tango/

      Reply Bombing people is I think going to war. Why are you so sure they cannot retaliate?

  3. Douglas Carter
    September 1, 2013

    I wrote to my MP twice before the vote in the HoC on Thursday, and that MP was among the host of MPs who opposed the original Government motion in the final vote. I was in agreement with those actions and would still oppose military action.

    Taking into account the narrative that Brooks Newmark added to the Daily Telegraph midweek, and other comments from the coalition cabinet members who contributed publically to the debate, there was a disturbing and eerie similarity to certain aspects of the Iraq situation of ten years ago.

    Ten years ago, counter to knowledge and previously asserted postures, both Blair and Bush had predicated large parts of their strategy on (i) a northern-originated frontal attack from Turkey, which Turkey vetoed, and (ii) that UN-approved and sourced stabilisation forces would move into Iraq to replace UK and US forces in theatre. Both theories which had no basis in credible fact prior to the very first missile being fired in 2003. It was the very worst kind of arrogant, wishful thinking. When questioned about these uncomfortable facts, again in advance of the 2003 attacks, Mr. Blair refused to countenance even the nature of the question asked, let alone that he might be under any form of obligation to provide a pertinent answer to the point.

    Comments by Mr. Newmark and by Mr. Cameron, plus contributions from others, most certainly including Mr. Obama, have seemed to blithely ignore the very real capacity for escalation in any consequences the ‘limited’ action they had planned might bring. It seems to me very manifest that the possibility of such possible escalation or widening of the conflict, rather than its stilling was such an unwelcome interloper in the debate that I do not believe the necessary preparations for those consequences have been properly thought through. I see striking possibilities the same wishful thinking of ten years ago is laced throughout this affair.

    If reports were largely correct that the British contribution would be from a single submarine and\or a handful of strike aircraft, going on recent history, the UK contribution would number less than ten ordnance warhead deliveries, more than likely fewer than five. This would be against around seventy-to-ninety ordnance warhead deliveries from the sea from US Naval forces, and possibly another forty from US aircraft. In other words, the UK contribution significant in international diplomacy terms, but only a token effort in military terms.

    If there was to be an escalation, or widening of the conflict (which in my opinion is very highly likely) then token UK forces are nowhere near sufficient in quantity, nor anywhere near as numerous in terms of current reserves, to react either strategically or tactically to the levels of escalation which could spring up in the region. For which the UK would have undoubted partial responsibility to answer. I have no doubt that Mr. Hammond and Mr. Osborne might protest otherwise, but in the old saying, they would say that, wouldn’t they? How can it be that ‘the fourth largest defence budget in the world’ according to Paul Flynn, can, when called on even well in advance, deliver only token efficacy? (For reference, I worked through the latter part of 1990 burning the candle at both ends in the logistical planning for the efforts to recover Kuwait – I do know the difference between ‘significant’ and ‘token’)

    In point of fact, it was somewhat bizarre to hear Mr. Osborne bemoaning the lack of appetite for some kind of British world influential role on Friday morning when it was with his own pen he consigned large tonnages of the equipment which once delivered that world influential role, without which no international influence can be asserted. There was a British Aircraft Carrier close to Syria a couple of months ago. It was the decommissioned hulk of the Ark Royal on tow to the breakers yard, scrapped at the behest of his own Government.. Mr. Osborne made clear at the shambolic and incoherent SDSR of two years ago that he sought unsuccessfully to cancel at least one (industry insiders say both) of the new Aircraft Carriers to be provided to the Royal Navy in the next decade. Yet the conflict he was prepared to sign up for would have inevitably cost very much more than keeping that earlier ship in operational service for a good few further years. For this Chancellor to desire a world role, it’s completely inconsistent for him to simultaneously believe that world role can be bought on the cheap. If you want to talk the talk, eventually you have to walk the walk, and it would appear Mr. Cameron’s government are unprepared to sign up for the second phenomenon there.

    Mr. Obama, Mr. Cameron and Mr. Newmark, alongside many others may indeed not believe that such dangerous escalation would not emerge. But their disbelief is not sufficient insurance against it happening anyway, and I have no confidence in the current or any likely future British Government committing the levels of resources to the logic of their signing up to R2P. I find it strange that so many of the media commentators are insistent on discussing the vote in the HoC on Thursday in terms of phenomena which were limited to the past ten days only. I suspect the muddle and blundering which lost Mr. Cameron his vote was a feature of this Government from very considerably prior to Syria’s recent affairs, and the public fall Mr. Cameron encountered this week cannot necessarily be wholly blamed on the ineffectual Mr. Miliband.

    A dog isn’t just for Christmas, and properly-maintained levels of deterrence and potential force isn’t just for when it’s convenient. Wishful thinking can be loaded into a weapon and fired only once – after that, it has no explosive power. I think the current Government needs to take those points a little closer to heart.

    1. Mike
      September 2, 2013

      Hear hear.

      Tomahawk is a diplomatic weapon, (etc ed), rather than a warfighting tool in the numbers deployed.

      I do wonder whether the government’s doctrine of deterrence really holds any water. Sarin is listed as a weapon of mass destruction, one which an operator should supposedly fear to use. As Assad is now being painted as ‘mad and bad’ could it not possibly be our own doctrine, consistently undermined by successive administrations, which is mad and bad, rather than every tin pot dictator who makes the world’s most wanted list?

      By limiting our projection capabilities to either a pinprick from an American badge in the shape of cruise or annihilation in the shape of trident the politicians have emptied their own closets of anything but hot air even before they debate.

      Reply The west has a formidable arsenal short of unleashing nuclear weapons. A large number of cruise missiles can do great damage.

  4. JimF
    September 1, 2013

    The question remains unanswered as to how government ministers and their supporters from the sidelines, such as one P Ashdown, were so “out on a limb” on this issue?

    Every government has its mood music-Thatcher’s was focussed determination, Major’s was vaguely low-intellect laissez-faire, and this one is unfocussed, job-sharing, perma-holiday mode. This lack of focus is what has come back to bite.

    On issues of the EU, banks, the economy, you and Labour have let them get away with it. On this issue, you had to act and did so in the correct manner.

  5. Brian Tomkinson
    September 1, 2013

    JR: “The Conservative party did not have time for the normal consultations and exchanges over the new policy of retaliation.”
    That was because Cameron and Hague were trying to rush this through. Why? Why was it so imperative to have approval for this that it necessitated the recall of Parliament on Thursday when it would have been sitting anyway tomorrow? We shall probably never know the truth.

  6. forthurst
    September 1, 2013

    “…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.”

    Is there a possibility that Miliband miscalculated the size of the Tory revolt and did not actually desire the outcome of the vote?

    Reply I suspect Mr Miliband had to change his stance because many Labour MPs were unwilling to support the government.

  7. GrahamC
    September 1, 2013

    The more I read about this the more I feel that the right result was purely a fluke (from a number of events) and in no way represents the way the system works.

    It is unlikely to happen again as loose ends will be tied on future issues – EU Referendum for instance.

    1. margaret brandreth-j
      September 1, 2013

      No fluke, no fluke.

  8. gordon451
    September 1, 2013

    Many thanks for that ‘good day’ report. On Thursday I concluded that the final vote essentially was rejecting the Blair-like rush to approval. However you have explained that “more and more Conservative MPs declared…..they could not vote for any motion next week to authorise force.” Does ‘next week’ mean ‘not in the foreseeable future’ and what were their reasons for refusing to authorise force ‘next week’?

    The government’s “second vote” mentioned in their bland motion, needed to approve force, was to be held next week.

  9. Lindsay McDougall
    September 2, 2013

    Yes, indeed. And Parliament can have many more good days is it has the will and courage to assert itself (a) against unmandated government action and (b) against EC Directives. Next time you are all asked to ‘take note’ of the next batch of EU Directives, just say ‘No’.

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