Britain's opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband is seen addressing the House of Commons in this still image taken from video in London August 29, 2013. (REUTERS/UK Parliament via Reuters TV)
London—So it turns out someone was paying attention after all. Earlier this week, as Britain and the United States looked like they were about to drift into yet another war with no clear justification, no defined objectives, and no exit strategy just to save President Obama from looking unmanly over his “red line,” the conventional wisdom, both here and in the United States, was that while the fig leaf of a “UN moment” might be required, there were no serious obstacles on the road to war.
Yet last night David Cameron’s government lost a House of Commons vote on a measure designed to approve—in principle—military action in Syria pending a report from UN weapons inspectors. This was the first defeat of a government motion related to military action in modern times. And even the failed measure was a climbdown from earlier proposals which would have simply authorized a military response, putting Britain once again shoulder to shoulder with the United States.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about David Cameron’s defeat was that the insurmountable obstacle on his glide path turned out to be Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, who after a summer of continual derision in the British press—and a barrage of friendly-fire briefings by his own MPs—suddenly seems to have found his missing mojo on, of all things, a matter of principle.
How much does Cameron’s defeat by Miliband matter? Well, thirty Tory MPs voted against the government. (Another thirty-one abstained). Nine Liberal Democrats also rebelled against their leader. (And fourteen more abstained) Meanwhile 220 Labour MPs held firm, though interestingly it was the Tory rebels who offered many of the most compelling arguments against rushing to war.
David Davis, who led the fight against the last Labour government’s proposal for mandatory identity cards, said: “We must have clear evidence to show this House that if there is a casus belli [justification for war], it’s real, not confected, not constructed, and that means perhaps a more aggressive disclosure of intelligence than we would normally have.” John Redwood, another former Tory leadership contender—and very much on the right of his party—asked, “How many soldiers and managers of soldiers and officers would you need to kill in order to guarantee that Assad will not do it again? I fear when you have someone as mad and bad as Assad, the answer might be very high. The question is would we want to do that much, are we sure it will work?”