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.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist