Only Miliband can now lead Britain on Syria

by Jonathan Todd

All changed, changed utterly. If politics is trench warfare, advancement by inch, especially now with our major parties seemingly so entrenched in their political and socio-economic citadels, with their safe seats and ideological comfort zones, then last night was a moment when the terrain dramatically shifted.

Ed Miliband led the Labour party out from behind the ghosts of Iraq. What emerges, however, is not a pacifist party. At the same time, the prime minister lost control of his most fundamental responsibility. “The people have spoken, the bastards,” he might lament.

The awful truth is that UKIP remain the party with a position closest to most of these people. Which is that we should stay completely out of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. There may be some who mistakenly think that this is Labour’s position.

The party’s position was, however, clearly set out in the 5 points that Miliband emailed to party members last night:

1.) We must let the UN weapons inspectors do their work and report to the UN Secretary Council;

2.) There must be compelling and internationally-recognised evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks;

3.) The UN Security Council should debate and vote on the weapons inspectors’ findings and other evidence. This is the highest forum of the world’s most important multilateral body and we must take it seriously;

4.) There must be a clear legal basis in international law for taking military action to protect the Syrian people;

5.) Any military action must be time limited, it must have precise and achievable objectives and it must have regard for the consequences of the future impact on the region.

I’d make two quibbles with this. First, the legal basis should not be allowed to stand and fall by a vote of the UN Security Council – as might be taken to be the implication. Second, the best evidence may only ever tell us that on the balance of probabilities it seems highly likely that the Assad regime was responsible for the attacks. Which might not be compelling to some but would be a breach of the red line rightly established by Barack Obama by others, including me.

Notwithstanding these quibbles, Miliband set out a basis upon which he would be prepared to support some kind of Syrian intervention. It is also worth revisiting the point of order that he raised at the end of last night’s Commons sitting:

“There having been no motion passed by this House tonight, will the prime minister confirm to the House that, given the will of the House that has been expressed tonight, he will not use the royal prerogative to order the UK to be part of military action before there has been another vote of the House of Commons?”

Cameron immediately gave him that reassurance. Which does not amount to a guarantee that the UK will never take part in any intervention in Syria. Only that the UK will not do so without the support of the Commons.

Given that Miliband has set out a basis upon which he would be prepared to support intervention and given that Cameron has confirmed that the UK will not be involved in any intervention without the support of the Commons, could not the UK be involved in an intervention on the basis that Miliband proposes, having had a Commons vote to endorse this basis?

Miliband might this morning feel content that his standing within the Labour party is improved and that the 2010 Liberal Democrat voters that he has brought to the party are more likely to remain with him. But if he wishes to achieve national leadership – not simply more confident standing within the Labour party – should he not make an offer to Cameron to put such a vote to the Commons?

And if Cameron continues to believe in the importance of intervening in Syria and in the primacy of the Commons, should he not welcome such an offer?

In these circumstances, Miliband and Cameron could be expected to whip their MPs through the same lobby and the motion would be almost certain to pass. If things are left as they are, the danger is that we seem to be saying that Britain believes that the red line doesn’t matter. If we proceed as I’ve described, we instead say that the red line matters but within a framework that secures maximum international legitimacy.

Yesterday was a great day for parliament and a good day for Miliband. He can now rest on these laurels or he can seek to move the UK to a position that conforms with Labour’s. The key barrier to this becoming the UK’s position is the further blow to Cameron’s ego that would be entailed in having to lean on Miliband to secure this.

Surely, though, the use of WMD against a people is bigger than even a prime ministerial ego?

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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10 Responses to “Only Miliband can now lead Britain on Syria”

  1. John Slinger says:

    Good analysis, Jonathan.

    My FT letter … … “Never again”/expressions of regret post-atrocity are pointless unless they inform future action.

  2. paul barker says:

    Well, its worth reading Dan Hodges take on last nights vote. He beleives that Milliband simply tricked The Coalition, implying that Labour would vote with The Goverment if concessions were given.
    Last night leaves Labour looking like an Isolationist “Little England” Party. Perhaps you can form an Electoral alliance with UKIP ?

  3. Henrik says:

    Leaving aside the advisability – and, indeed, utility – of a demonstration of force against the Syrian regime, it does seem to me that the Leader of HM Opposition has behaved in a shabby and duplicitous manner and has chosen to seek political advantage out of a deadly serious Parliamentary debate and motion.

    If Labour was always going to vote against, simple honesty should have impelled the Leader of the Opposition to make this clear to the Prime Minister. This would have preserved whatever reputation he might have for probity and patriotism and allowed the debate to address what could be done, if military action were not on the table, to express the nation’s disgust at the use of chemical weapons against a civilian target. Instead, he chose to embarrass the Prime Minister and trivialise a deadly serious matter into petty Party politics.

    Good work, comrades, if this is how you behave in Opposition, how may we expect you to behave in Government, where, if my memory serves me correctly, you tend to be huge enthusiasts for sending British troops in harm’s way on dubious pretexts.

  4. Mike Homfray says:

    No. Last night leaves Labour looking like a party not prepared to trot along behind America’s every foreign policy mistake, but making up our own mind based on what is right for this country

  5. steve says:

    It now seems that Obama is scaling back the proposed intervention. And on Any Questions (R4) Shirley Williams was suggesting any strike would be almost insignificant – perhaps only one cruise missile directed at one government building.

    But people have had enough of deceitful politicians. There is a good deal of suspicion that what begins in Syria could well end up in Tehran – even Dan Hodges suggested this in his blog today. Which of course, would be very satisfying for the arms industry. Meanwhile, for us in the West, our liberties and freedoms will be further diminished for the sake of a war that broadly is intended to defend them.

    Because of the lack of detail and preponderance of risk, and that the opposition (with strong Al Qaeda representation) have said they’ll only “negotiate when the military situation in Syria is positive for rebel forces” (NYTimes) I’d say there are sufficient grounds for welcoming yesterday’s outcome. Well done Ed.

  6. swatantra says:

    If Labour had any sense, we’ed folllow the example of Pontius Pilate and wash our hands of the Middle East and leave the Zionists and Islamists and Jihadists and Sunnis and Shias and the whole bleeding lot of them to sort it out in the cauldron of the Middle East. I don’t know about you, but I’ve frankly had it up to here with that lot.
    I’d only react if that conflagration spilled out onto the streets of Britain.

  7. John p Reid says:

    Swatantra, I hate to ask but what would happen when Jeremy Corbin and co, with their friends start inviting extremists to meetings and the Labour Party starts having slogans like Zionism is racism, as they did at party conferences in the 80’s, I think Ed” I am a. Zionist” would be lynched,

    although its not quite the same Labour use to be affiliated with the SDLP, and the Tories with the one Nation UUP, the Labour Party on a political endorsing point of view has Labour members who back Sinn Fein, I’m sure there’s Tories who are more close to the DUP, than UUP, I’m all for party politics not being influential, but what would happen if some Labour members had second jobs supporting we believe in Israel?

  8. swatantra says:

    Why should anybody take it on themselves to act without the Authority of the UN and intrude on the sovreignity of another country. America nor Britain nor France nor Russia, or anybody else, are not The 4 Just Men to dispense Justice as they see it, just because they think so.

  9. Ex-labour says:

    The government gave Miliband every concession he wanted in return for his confirmed support. After confirming his support he apparently changed his mind……or maybe played politics with the suffering of the Syrian people. It doesn’t matter what you point of view is on intervention, what he did was wrong.

    He’s now confirmed as a deceitful shit. This blog confirms just how desperate Leftards are to grasp at any straw to improve Miliband’s public image.

  10. Ben H says:

    I have to say that I think it is true that only Miliband can lead on Syria now after his opportunist and/or weak behaviour in doubling back on his support for the government has damaged Cameron’s political capital.

    And what an alarming prospect that is. The idea that a ditherer and/or a cynic privileging his partisan advantage and/or an isolationist confirmed a priori anti-interventionist (delete as appropriate – those seem to me to be the three realistic options) should control policy on this seems to me to be rather damaging to the country.

    And the anti-American comments since are also inappropriate for a future PM and are damaging to the national interest. If Miliband does make it next time then I suppose we can look forward to not knowing what the Americans are going to do until they’ve done it, rather more regularly…

    I realise it is not very measured, but ultimately I really do feel that it is both a disaster and a tragedy that a great party with a magnificent history should be led by such a man.

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