Parliament rebukes Cameron on Syria. What damage did it do?

Parliament's vote against intervention could shake confidence in both the prime minister and Britain's place in the world.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
Prime Minister David Cameron leaves No. 10 Downing Street Thursday ahead of a Parliamentary debate over British military intervention in Syria. Mr. Cameron's motion was defeated in what some say is a blow to both the prime minister and Britain's global standing.

The most immediate impact of last night's shock parliamentary vote against British military action in Syria may be felt in the United States and France, as leaders of those two countries debate punitive strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But the more lasting effect, experts say, may be the damage done to the reputation of Prime Minister David Cameron and Britain’s standing in the world.

The late-night debate in London saw 30 of Mr. Cameron’s own Conservative backbenchers join opposition members of Parliament in voting against an already watered-down motion calling for intervention if a gas attack was proved to have been carried out by Syrian forces. UN weapon inspectors are still investigating the attack on Aug. 21, which killed more than 350 in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus.

Cameron said he would abide by the vote, for which he had recalled Parliament, forcing some MPs to return from their holidays. After losing it by 272 votes to 285, the prime minister said: “It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.”

A defeat for Cameron

But Wyn Grant, professor of politics at Warwick University, says the vote dealt a blow – if a recoverable one – to Cameron's reputation in Britain.

“There’s no question his authority has been damaged, but he is capable of bouncing back. Foreign policy is important, but not crucial to domestic politics. It was a high risk policy for Cameron to embark on, and it is a setback for him, but I don’t see anyone in the Tory party strong enough to oppose him. I think he will be the Tory leader at the next election.”

But Patrick Dunleavy, professor of political science and public policy at the London School of Economics, says the political damage to Cameron could see an early end to the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition government. "[Labour leader] Ed Miliband played his hand well, reflecting public opinion which did not want military intervention, and I think he’ll get a bounce in the polls."

“For David Cameron, he’ll now be seen as weak and unable to control his own MPs, as will Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem MPs. There’s now a determined group of Tory right-wing MPs who’ve tasted power from this and will want more. With the economy looking like it’s improving, they will be thinking, why do they need to continue with the coalition, and instead go for an early election in June 2014."

Antiwar groups, elated by the vote's outcome, were also critical of the prime minister. “This has left Cameron in a very, very weak position, especially since he couldn’t even get support from his own back benchers,” says Ian Chamberlain, a spokesman for the Stop the War coalition. Mr. Chamberlain says his organization was "delighted" by the vote, calling it a victory for parliamentary democracy.

“It is a testament to our antiwar campaign over the past 12 years, and the effect it’s had on people’s thinking," he says. "We have to be careful, though, because the US look like it will still attack Syria, maybe using bases in the UK.”

Professor Grant points to memories of Iraq as the root cause of Cameron's defeat. “Iraq overshadowed this vote. Iraq destroyed trust in politicians and intelligence gathering which was reflected in public opposition." But he adds that Cameron's loss may not mean a gain for Mr. Miliband.

"There may be some kind of post-Suez moment," Grant says, citing Britain's ill-fated campaign in Egypt that marked the UK's decline as a superpower. "But don’t forget, [Hugh] Gaitskell, the Labour leader [at the time], opposed the invasion and then lost the next election heavily.”

Strained 'special relationship'?

The vote also raises concerns about Britain's international standing, particularly its "special relationship" with the US. While senior Tories today supported Cameron, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said on BBC Radio 4’s Today program that there would be damage to Britain’s US ties. He added that the vote would lead to "national soul-searching" about the country’s role in the world.

Political opponents were happy to go further. Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, said it left Britain a "hugely diminished country." The former special forces soldier added on Twitter: “In 50 years trying to serve my country, I have never felt so depressed/ashamed. Britain’s answer to the Syrian horrors? none of our business!”

But analysts were more tempered in their assessments. “There will be an effect on our relationship with the US because they’ve always looked on the UK as someone who comes to their aid," says Grant, "but not after this vote."

But Professor Dunleavy says there will not be any lasting international damage to Britain among its allies.

“It’s happened before, when Harold Wilson refused to get involved in Vietnam despite very strong continuous pressure from the US," he says. “Wikileaks showed that there are complex military relations between the UK and US. We are deeply enmeshed with the US and NATO.”

Stop the War's Chamberlain is similarly skeptical about whether the vote diminished Britain’s global reputation.

“It depends on what type [of role] Britain wants to play in the world," he says. "But I do think it’s a great moment for British democracy when Parliament represented the British people’s views – only 9 percent of people polled in the Telegraph supported military action."

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