Rarely has a UK prime minister done so much damage to himself in a single week as David Cameron has with his mishandling of a vote authorising military action against Syria. Cameron may cling onto power after his stunning parliamentary defeat on Thursday night, but he will cut a diminished figure on the domestic and international stage. In the process, he has also damaged Britain’s influence.
Cameron’s litany of errors began with his decision to recall parliament from its summer holidays in order to give the green light to British participation in a military strike designed to punish Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its people last week. The decision to get parliament’s approval was right, even if not constitutionally necessary. The mistake was to rush things before all the evidence of Assad’s culpability had been gathered and published. In France, which is also contemplating military action, the parliamentary debate is scheduled for next week.
To be fair, Cameron tried to achieve political consensus. He initially persuaded Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, to back military action. He also got Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, to sign up. Both of these are also partly to blame for the fiasco. They should have attached many more conditions to their support.
Miliband quickly saw the error of his ways, especially after Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations’ secretary general, pleaded for his inspectors to be given more time to complete their on-the-scene investigation of the chemical attack. The Labour leader insisted not only on more time, but also that there should be compelling evidence of Assad’s culpability and that the government should aim to secure approval by the U.N. Security Council before launching any strike.
Large numbers of backbench Conservative MPs were also queasy about getting involved in the Syrian civil war, as was a majority of the British public. The shadow of the Iraq war, which parliament authorised on the basis of dodgy intelligence, loomed large.