Syria: Cameron left reeling after miscalculation

David Cameron. Picture: Getty
David Cameron. Picture: Getty
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EMBARRASSING photos of his exposed tummy aside, ­David Cameron’s summer had been going splendidly.

There had been enjoyable family visits to Portugal, Jura and Cornwall. There were figures suggesting Britain’s endless economic funk was finally coming to an end. If he was paying attention, the Prime Minister might also have spotted Ed Miliband finally ending an anonymous summer of silence by being hit by an egg in a market in East London.

On the beach, Cameron was able to catch up on a spot of reading: Churchill’s First War – a new account of the young Winston’s adventures in Afghanistan detailing the story of a naive young politician gleefully marching to war in the east, and then discovering how the reality of combat is more brutal and complex. What could possibly go wrong?

Wind forward a week. Cameron is barking down the phone at Miliband that he is “letting down the Americans”. Michael Gove is sitting in a packed House of Commons hissing at rebellious backbenchers that they are “a disgrace”. And those Tory MPs, so quiet of late, are once again complaining about an aloof prime minister, with a tin ear for the mood of the party, and an “amateurish” way of governing. Labour sources speak of dealing with a No 10 operation that was “stubborn” and “cavalier”.

This weekend, Cameron is reeling. His own authority is under question. And seemingly held at the whim of his lawless party, the title “lame-duck” hangs in the air. Just how bad is it?

His problems began a week ago yesterday, at around 6pm, when he broke off from his holiday to take a call from president Barack Obama and prime minister Stephen Harper of Canada. About 48 hours earlier, appalling footage had emerged from Damascus of children and adults gulping for air, as if they had been exposed to a chemical attack. The fact that president Bashar al-Assad of Syria had failed to co-operate with the United Nations in the aftermath of the attack suggested that his regime had “something to hide”, the three men agreed.

There would, a statement afterwards declared, need to be a “serious response”. It was time to “examine all the options” and to ensure that further outrages were “deterred”. That was the official record. But did Cameron go further? Obama had said last year that the use of chemical warfare would be a “red line”. With the evidence of the Damascus atrocity now pouring in, he had to attack to retain credibility. He asked Britain for its support. So the strong assumption among many observers is that, with the “special relationship” hanging in the air between them, Cameron assured him that Britain would be there by his side.

If so, it was a terrible miscalculation. For Cameron did not have it sown up. The government, however, began to act as if it were all in hand. On Monday, Cameron called president Vladimir Putin in Russia to make clear that the attack had to be met with a “serious response”. Foreign Secretary William Hague, on Tuesday morning, hinted at the government’s mood, declaring bluntly that diplomacy had now failed. On Twitter, Cameron then announced that parliament was being recalled for “a clear government motion and vote on UK response”. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister, having cancelled a trip to Afghanistan, was on board. The plan was in ­motion.

But both Cameron and Clegg, cocooned within the machinery of government, appear not to have properly thought through the numbers game at Westminster, nor the politics of what they were proposing.

The charge is that, while they both were keen to let parliament have its say and pay regard to the UN, that these efforts were largely symbolic.

Unfortunately, Miliband and shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander saw them as anything but. Alexander had already struck a cautious note towards military action on the Today programme on Tuesday morning. He, say party sources, was putting some “steel” in the spine of Miliband and his advisers to be wary of a “rush to war”.

Meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Miliband and Alexander told Cameron they wanted more assurances on the evidence that Assad was responsible, and demanded that the UN weapons inspectors be given more time. They also raised concerns that a strike could escalate the Syrian powder keg.

Hastily, a resolution authorising “necessary measures” was put to the UN Security Council. Legal advice and intelligence material was published as well. But none of it convinced the Tory rebels, nor Labour.

Cameron presented Miliband with his draft motion on Wednesday afternoon. It seems to have come as a complete shock when, a few hours later, Miliband rang back to say he wasn’t backing it and that a second vote should be held after the weapons inspectors had reported back. Cameron, it is understood, was livid even accusing him of “siding with [Sergei] Lavrov”, the Russian foreign minister. But, with no options, he was forced later that night to back Miliband’s proposal.

That too wasn’t enough. The following morning, in cabinet, Cameron and Clegg were getting similar concerns from Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland Secretary who was equally doubtful about the plans. He also warned – presciently – that the views of sceptical party backbenchers were not being properly considered.

He was brushed aside too. But, at 11pm that evening, reality finally hit, with both the government motion and the Labour amendment being ­defeated.

The anger within the Tory fold at Miliband’s decision to press ahead with his opposition to Cameron’s motion, despite the fact Cameron agreed to the Labour leader’s delay, is still raw this weekend. But Cameron’s Downing Street operation, and his style of leadership, is coming under scrutiny again.

Tory MPs who opposed him say they did not have their concerns over the evidence and the legal advice met properly. Nor were they impressed by the attempt to “bounce” them into a speedy decision, apparently due to a timetable set by Washington the previous weekend. Why were MPs not consulted? Why did the whips not war-game their plan? Why, bluntly, did no-one do some basic counting?

As MP Sir Richard Shepherd said: “I don’t think you 
could reasonably expect anything but a reaction when something is dumped on the Commons with no preparation, no sounding out, not ensuring that you have the majority.”

MPs claim that it was only on Wednesday night, when No 10 realised it might not be able to take Labour’s support for granted, that calls began to be made checking on votes.

Nor was it just Labour figures dealing with Cameron and Clegg, who described their handling of the issue as “cavalier”. The “gung-ho” attitude of Clegg, in particular, has raised eyebrows, given the Lib Dems’ stance on Iraq.

The farcical scenes were completed by the revelation that two ministers, Justine Greening and Mark Simmonds, failed to back the motion because they were in a soundproofed meeting room and did not hear a bell alerting MPs to vote.

Cameron is now left to make a virtue of humility. But, declared observers yesterday, his international standing has been damaged grievously, summed up by the cutting remark by US secretary of state John Kerry on Friday when he referred to the US’s “oldest ally” – France.

Clegg, meanwhile, was writing to party members to declare he understood the “misgivings” that many of his colleagues had over his pro-
intervention stance. The question hanging over him is why did he act so eagerly, where his predecessors Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy were so cautious?

Both will have to watch as Miliband holds forth from the moral high ground, having given him the chance to atone for Labour’s original sin of being the party of Iraq.

How the Prime Minister and his deputy must be wishing for the beach and a good book.