Commons defeat on Syria humiliates Cameron and strains relations with US
Washington can no longer rely on Britain for automatic backup for military action
British prime minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street by the back door yesterday. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
He lost by just 13 votes, but British prime minister David Cameron’s failure to win parliamentary approval to launch military action against Syria may place a question mark over Britain’s role in the world as well as his own career.
Cameron’s inability to determine Britain’s foreign policy and join Washington and Paris in strikes against Syria will strain the “special relationship” with the United States – the foundation of Britain’s global role since the second World War.
It is a stunning reversal in international affairs, after a decade in which Britain was the only major power to join the US on the battlefield in Iraq, and by far its most important comrade in arms in Afghanistan. More than 600 British troops have died under US command in those two wars, since prime minister Tony Blair declared he would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the States after the September 11th attacks on the US.
After Cameron lost Thursday’s vote to support the principle of military action against Syria to deter Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons, Washington can no longer rely on Britain for automatic military backup.
Labour’s Ed Miliband led the parliamentary revolt saying he was not opposed to force in principle but unconvinced by Cameron’s case.
Cameron said he hoped US president Barack Obama would understand, and he had nothing to apologise for.
“[This is] a government and a parliament that is deeply engaged in the world,” Cameron said. “We’ve the fourth largest military in the world and one of the best diplomatic networks any country has in the world. We have great strengths as a country and we should continue to use those.”
Domestically, the defeat was the heaviest Cameron has suffered in his three years in power. It underlined his failure to pacify malcontents in his ruling Conservative party who complain he doesn’t listen to them.
He had begun to recover from previous party rebellions over gay marriage and Britain’s EU membership, had begun to erode Labour’s opinion poll lead, and, with the economy showing signs of recovery, was optimistically eyeing re-election in 2015.
But 30 of his 304 Conservative lawmakers rebelled and many others used a febrile debate on the subject to criticise him and the government for trying to rush into war.
Public opinion was never on his side: a YouGov poll published on Thursday showed 51 per cent of the British public opposed a missile strike.
Cameron cut short his holiday to recall lawmakers for what he thought was going to be a swift joint strike on Syria, and tried to woo his own members of parliament before the vote. His plan began to unravel on Wednesday evening when Miliband said he wanted major concessions before he could support action.
Cameron agreed to wait for a report from UN inspectors on last week’s suspected chemical attack in Syria before launching any strikes, and to hold two votes in parliament instead of one.
But Miliband, battling to establish his leadership credentials within his own party, said he still couldn’t back Cameron, leaving the prime minister relying solely on his own party and his Liberal Democrat junior coalition partners.
Political allies say Cameron will recover and his party leadership will not be challenged before the election. However, critics, some in his own party, think he is now vulnerable.
David Hartwell, a former British ministry of defence official, told Reuters Cameron had badly miscalculated. “Cameron really only has himself to blame. He’s tied himself in a bunch of knots largely out of a desire to distance himself from his predecessors,” he said, referring to Blair.