Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Cameron's loss is parliament's gain

To listen to much of the coverage of politics in the UK these days you would often think that the opinion of only three people really matters. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg.

So much of the debate is conducted around what these three men think and want that the commentariat are largely at a loss to know what to do when suddenly the true nature of our democratic system asserts itself as happened on Thursday with the Commons voting to decline military support for an attack on Syria.

So the prism that this story has been filtered through has been a "defeat" for Cameron. Or a "victory" for Miliband (even though his position shifted several times in the run-up to the vote). Or in some cases also a "defeat" for Clegg who is pretty much in the same position as Cameron albeit less exposed.

This sort of reporting though seems to follow the unwritten rule that we live in some sort of presidential system whereby a usually all-powerful man (Cameron) has somehow been inexplicably thwarted. That is not the system we live in. We live in a parliamentary democracy. 650 constituencies return members to this parliament and they vote on our behalf on issues. If a majority of them are in favour of an action or change, it happens. If they're not, it doesn't. There's nothing strange or ahistorical in that sense about Thursday's vote. There simply were not enough MPs willing to vote for military action. Or more accurately the principle of military action (the actual vote on action would have come later and now almost certainly won't).

After some soul searching I personally found myself by Thursday reluctantly in favour of military action. But it was a finely balanced thing and I completely understand others, including a majority of parliamentarians coming to a different conclusion.

There is no doubt that the Prime Minister lost the vote on Thursday. He wanted support for a plan to intervene and now that is not going to happen. But we are in a hung parliament with a fragile economy and many other problems. It is hardly surprising that on a vote to start launching missiles at a rogue regime within a highly unstable region our representatives in Westminster decided no. If they were unpersuaded then so be it.

My initial reaction on Thursday was to think that Cameron was severely damaged by this episode but I have since checked myself. I was reacting like a typical Westminster Bubble-ite filtering everything through a presidential "politics of personality" filter. There is no reason why the PM cannot emerge from this episode with his head held high. He tried to garner support for action that even the most gung-ho would surely concede the consequences of which are highly unpredictable and lost by only a couple of handfuls of votes. Parliament were accurately reflecting the will of the country if polling is to be believed. So Cameron now goes back to Obama and says he cannot follow through with what he would like to do due to his hands being tied. Obama of all people knows what this feels like having had many bruising battles with politicians in his own political system with its separation of powers and staggered electoral timetables. If anything I expect the President has much sympathy with his UK colleague and respects the position he is in.

If anything Cameron might actually end up in a stronger position than he would have done. If the military action that the US and France are still very likely to pursue goes badly now he will not be politically damaged by the fallout from it. But if it goes well he can rightly point out that he was in favour of it. It's sort of a win-win for him.

And all this talk of his "loss of Prime Ministerial authority" is rather overblown. What is the point of having a parliament at all if the Prime Minister of the day can simply push his or her will through it? What we have seen is parliament doing its job.

We should not complain about that but rejoice that the system is working correctly.

1 comment:

Bloke in North Dorset said...

You're right, but that sort of argument doesn't sell papers or get TV news editors excited.

I'm looking forward to hearing what Emma has to say about this. I think Labour has to be very careful about gloating because if I were a Tory would be pointing out that at least Cameron didn't try to mislead (some would say lie to) the British people.

Furthermore I think this Dan Hodges has a point (via Guido)has a point:

Ed Miliband said that if he was to back the Government, David Cameron would have to publish the legal advice upon which the case for war rested. David Cameron agreed, and did so.

Ed Miliband then said a solid case needed to be presented demonstrating the Assad regime’s culpability for the chemical attacks. David Cameron agreed, and published the JIC analysis which concluded “there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility”.

Ed Miliband then said the Government would have to exhaust the UN route before any recourse to military action. David Cameron agreed, and confirmed he would be submitting a motion to the P5 to that effect.

Ed Miliband said he would need to await the UN weapons inspectors report. David Cameron agreed.

Finally, and crucially, Ed Miliband said there would have to be not one, but two House of Commons votes before military action could be authorised. Once again David Cameron agreed. And then, having sought – and received – all these assurances from the Prime Minister, Ed Miliband went ahead and voted against the Government anyway.

He concludes:

Every step of the way Ed
Miliband’s actions were governed by what was in his own narrow political interests, rather than the national interest. As for the children of Syria, they didn’t even get a look in. This week I’ve seen the true face of Ed Miliband. And I suspect that the country has too.