How our gung-ho parliament turned against military interventionism

Blair was able to win more support for a full-scale invasion than Cameron can for arming a rebel group.

In 2003, Tony Blair made the now infamous case for the Iraq war. Despite vocal opposition from within his own party and the Lib Dems, he enjoyed the overwhelming support of Parliament. Then Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith backed the war and so did all but 15 Tory MPs. Militaristic foreign policy bought the political elite together. The atmosphere now could not be more different. As a consensus grows around Britain’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, MPs are becoming increasingly sceptical of interventionism. This is epitomised by the current split in opinion over arming the Syrian rebels.

Paul Flynn, a Labour MP who campaigned against the Iraq war, told me: "The anti-war sentiment is deep-seated among all parties. Two futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost us dearly in blood and treasure."

His cynicism towards Britain’s role in the Middle East is shared by others in Parliament. Last month, Caroline Lucas led a debate in the Commons on the decision to invade Iraq, ten years on from the start of the war. The overwhelming feeling among MPs was that the government made the wrong decision.

Growing scepticism towards interventionism might also reflect Britain’s role in Libya. The 2011 action prompted little opposition (just 13 MPs voted against it) and Ed Miliband actually encouraged the government to act more quickly. Britain was better placed to intervene in Libya than in Syria; the Gaddafi regime was weaker than Assad’s and the atrocities were, at the time, seen as more 'one-sided'. The main objective of the intervention was achieved and Gaddafi was overthrown, but not all is well in post-intervention Libya. Parts of the country, particularly Benghazi, are still plagued with political violence. Many who fled at the height of the conflict are scared to return. Last month, the Libya Herald reported that 650 Libyans had refused to leave a refugee camp in Tunisia. Such reports have contributed towards the current anti-war sentiment, with MPs thinking twice before allowing Britain to support rebels in another state.

This growing movement has left David Cameron and William Hague with few allies in their attempt to argue for greater involvement in Syria. In 2003, Blair faced significant opposition when he made the case for invading Iraq, most notably from Robin Cook, who resigned from the cabinet. But he was still able to win more support for a full-scale invasion than Cameron can for arming a rebel group.

Unlikely alliances are being formed in opposition to militarism. Boris Johnson is not known for toeing the party line, but he is seldom so defiantly on the side of Ed Miliband. Last month, he warned that weapons might end up in the hands of "al-Qaeda thugs" after the Labour leader had claimed the government was too focused on arming the rebels. Eighty Tory MPs have signed a letter demanding a vote on the issue and the cabinet appears divided, with Nick Clegg and others publicly expressing their concerns.

Flynn told me: "Hague's demand that we should punch above our weight is clearly understood to lead to dying beyond our responsibilities and spending beyond our interests."

His own anti-interventionism no longer casts him as a rebel in his own party, as it did in 2003. A wind blowing through Westminster threatens to tear apart the political establishment as the Prime Minister’s critics find support from the most unlikely quarters. David Cameron may still push for increased British involvement in the Middle East but he is unlikely to have parliament – or even his own party – on side.

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London on June 26, 2013, to attend Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

James is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in UK politics and social commentary. His blog can be found hereYou can follow him on Twitter @jamesevans42.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.