Syria: Ed Miliband has had a lucky escape

Cameron's decision to take intervention off the table means Miliband will never have to decide whether to support military action.

Until last night's extraordinary defeat of the government (the last time a prime minister lost a vote over an issue of peace and war was in 1782), Ed Miliband was facing one of the most politically dangerous decisions of his leadership. Having wisely refused to either rule in or rule out the use of military action against Syria until after the UN weapons inspectors had reported, he would eventually have had to come off the fence. Either position would have been fraught with risk. Had he supported intervention (as seemed most likely), he would have faced a significant Labour rebellion with further frontbench resignations (shadow transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick stood down in advance of last night's vote). Had he opposed it, he would have run the risk of being confounded by a successful operation. 

Last night's parliamentary vote means he will now never have to decide. While there remains a hypothetical majority for military action (Labour's amendment would have passed had the Tories swallowed their pride and supported or abstained), David Cameron's decision to unambigously rule out intervention means it will never be tested. After Miliband asked him to reassure MPs that he would not use the royal prerogative to approve military action, he replied:

It is very clear tonight that while the House has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.

Miliband could have responded by promising to 'work with the Prime Minister' (as Labour List's Mark Ferguson suggests) to secure a majority for Labour's stance: that military action should remain an option if "compelling evidence" is provided that the Assad regime was responsible for the Ghouta massacre. But in his post-vote interview with Sky News he instead chose to second Cameron's decision to take intervention off the table. He said: 

Military intervention is now off the agenda for Britain. There would have been nothing worse than intervention without full international support.

Faced with a hostile PLP and a hostile public (just 22% supported military action), Miliband took the escape route offered to him by Cameron. While some interventionists will despair at the apparent lack of principle involved, his political logic was impeccable. 

"When you decide, you divide" said Blair upon Thatcher's death. Miliband's great fortune is that he will never have to do so. 

Update: In his latest remarks on Syria, Miliband has made it even clearer that, for him, military intervention is no longer an option. He said: 

There are other routes than military means to actually help the people of Syria.

I don't think the Government should wash its hands of this issue.

I think all of the focus of the Prime Minister and the Government in the coming days needs to be working with our allies to find other ways to press President Assad, to take action with our allies to put the diplomatic, political and other pressure that needs to be put on the Government there.

We need the peace talks to get going. So there are other things the Government should be doing.

Ed Miliband leaves Parliament with an advisor on August 29, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.