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.

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Jeremy Corbyn's confidence shows he knows he's safe

Even after the Copeland by-election defeat, Labour MPs believe their leader is unassailable.

A week after Tony Blair’s pro-Remain cry, Jeremy Corbyn rose to deliver a speech on “the road to Brexit”.  But it is the road to ruin that Labour MPs believe he is leading them along. The party last night became the first opposition to lose a by-election to the government since 1982. Were the Copeland cataclysm replicated across the country (and Labour traditionally underperforms at general elections), the Conservatives would win a majority of 114.

MPs believe this new nadir is not in spite of Corbyn but because of him. They blame his historic opposition to nuclear power (the seat’s major employer) and personal unpopularity for the Tories’ triumph (with the largest swing to a governing party since 1966). In his speech, Corbyn hailed Labour’s victory against Ukip in the accompanying Stoke by-election (though Paul Nuttall didn’t make it hard for them) and attributed the Copeland defeat to voters feeling “let down by the political establishment”. Yet in the Cumbrian constituency it was not a populist upstart that benefited but Theresa May’s government. Even the Prime Minister’s refusal to save local maternity services (“Babies will die,” warned the opposition) wasn’t enough to spare Labour. 

Asked by ITV journalist Chris Ship whether he had “looked in the mirror” and asked “could the problem actually be me?”, Corbyn flatly replied: “No”. He did not sound as if he was lying. “Why not?” pressed Ship. “Thank you for your question,” the leader said.

Corbyn speaks with the confidence of a man who knows that he is, for now, unassailable. In Labour’s internal conflict, it is not last night’s result that counts but last year’s leadership election. Corbyn emerged strengthened from that contest and MPs fear a similar outcome in the event of a new contest. Though activists express increasing anxiety about the party’s fortunes, most remain loyal to the leader they re-elected last summer. “We are a campaigning party, we campaign for social justice in this country,” Corbyn emphasised. Many voted for him believing, after the Tories’ surprise majority, that the 2020 election had been lost in advance. From this perspective, opposition is not the means to an end (government) but an end in itself. 

The bulk of Corbyn’s speech was a defence of the party’s decision to accept Brexit. In the post-referendum climate, Labour is being squeezed by the pro-Remain Lib Dems and the pro-Leave Tories (who have benefited from Ukip defectors). Though the party has championed amendments, such as one guaranteeing EU nationals’ rights, its commitment to vote for Article 50 regardless meant its efforts have struggled to acquire momentum. “No deal is a bad deal,” Corbyn declared of May’s threat to depart without an agreement. But that the Prime Minister can even float this possibility is a mark of Labour’s weakness.

A day may yet come when Corbyn faces a palace coup or reaches for the pearl-handled revolver. But Copeland is proof that his job is far safer than those of many of his MPs. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.