It suits both Cameron and Miliband to move on from Syria - there won't be a second vote

Both leaders have a shared political interest in avoiding the party splits that a new vote on military action would cause.

Despite George Osborne yesterday explicitly ruling out the possibility of British participation in military action against Syria, the idea that parliament should vote a second time on Syria continues to gain ground. Boris Johnson, Malcolm Rifkind, Paddy Ashdown and Michael Howard are among the big beasts urging David Cameron to put intervention back on the table.

The view is that the decision of Barack Obama to seek Congressional authorisation for action after 9 September means that parliament now has time to reconsider its stance, potentially after the UN weapons inspectors have reported and the Security Council has voted. In addition, all rightly note that there remains a hypothetical majority for intervention based on the conditions outlined in Labour's amendment. 

In his Telegraph column, Boris Johnson suggests that Cameron should call Ed Miliband's bluff by staging a second vote: 

I see no reason why the Government should not lay a new motion before Parliament, inviting British participation – and then it is Ed Miliband, not David Cameron, who will face embarrassment. The Labour leader has been capering around pretending to have stopped an attack on Syria – when his real position has been more weaselly.

If you add the Tories and Blairites together, there is a natural majority for a calibrated and limited response to a grotesque war crime.

Elsewhere, Rifkind and Ashdown suggest that Miliband, who was careful to avoid ruling out military action during last week's debate, should take the initiative. Ashdown says: "Of course the Government cannot ask Parliament (for which, read, in effect Mr Miliband) to think again. There’s nothing to stop Parliament deciding to do so in light of new developments."

In the Times, Rifkind writes: "I assume that Mr Miliband meant what he said to Parliament last week. If he did he should acknowledge that his concerns about premature military action are now being met, albeit in an unexpected way...He and the Prime Minister should meet privately and discuss whether there is now sufficient common ground that would allow them to agree a common British policy together with our international allies."

On the Labour side, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy has distanced himself from Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander by refusing to dismiss the possibility of a second vote. He said yesterday: "if there were to be really significant developments in Syria and the conditions that we set in our motion on Thursday about it being legal, about the evidence being available, compelling evidence, about a UN process, then of course the prime minister has the right to bring that back to Parliament". The four backbenchers who abstained from voting against the government motion, Ben Bradshaw, Ann Clwyd, Meg Munn and John Woodcock, are also making the case for another vote. 

But while a second vote might be right in principle, the political reality that is that Cameron and Miliband have a shared political interest in avoiding one. 

Cameron is understandably reluctant to avoid appearing indecisive by putting military action back on the table and, in view of Labour's unpredictable stance, is not confident of winning a second vote. A significant number of Tory MPs made it clear that while they voted with the government last week, they would not have done so had the vote been directly on military action. For Cameron, a second defeat would be immensely damaging and could even prove terminal. He is also under pressure from senior Tories to refocus on the domestic issues, principally the economy, that will determine the outcome of the election. 

For Miliband, the political incentives to avoid another vote are equally strong. Were parliament to reconsider military action, the Labour leader would risk suffering the major party split he has narrowly avoided. Shadow transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick resigned before last week's vote over Miliband's refusal to rule out intervention and I'm told by a party source that at least six other frontbenchers, including one shadow cabinet minister, were prepared to do so. After a woeful summer, Miliband has regained some authority as the man who prevented a precipitous rush to war even if, as Boris writes, "his real position has been more weaselly". He understandably now considers the question of military action closed. 

As dismaying as it may be to principled Labour and Tory interventionists, it suits both Cameron and Miliband to move on. 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby to listen to the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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All doctors kill people – and the threat of prosecution is bad for everyone

We must recognise the reality of medical practice: just because a doctor makes a mistake, that doesn’t mean they’ve all broken the law. 

On 15 November the Court of Appeal quashed the 2013 conviction for gross negligence manslaughter (GNM) of a senior consultant surgeon in London, David Sellu. Sellu, who had completed his prison term by the time the appeal was heard, will never get back the 15 months of his life that he spent in jail. Nor will the personal and family trauma, or the damage to his reputation and livelihood, ever properly heal. After decades of exemplary practice – in the course of the investigation numerous colleagues testified to his unflappable expertise – Sellu has said that he has lost the heart ever to operate again.

All doctors kill people. Say we make 40 important decisions about patients in a working day: that’s roughly 10,000 per annum. No one is perfect, and medical dilemmas are frequently complex, but even if we are proved right 99 per cent of the time, that still leaves 100 choices every year where, with the benefit of hindsight, we were wrong.

Suppose 99 per cent of those have no negative consequences. That’s still one disaster every 12 months. And even if most of those don’t result in a fatal outcome, over the course of a career a few patients are – very regrettably – going to die as a result of our practice. Almost invariably, these fatalities occur under the care of highly skilled and experienced professionals, working in good faith to the very best of their abilities.

If one of these cases should come before a crown court, the jury needs meticulous direction from the trial judge on the legal threshold for a criminal act: in essence, if a doctor was clearly aware of, and recklessly indifferent to, the risk of death. Sellu’s conviction was quashed because the appeal court found that the judge in his trial had singularly failed to give the jury these directions. The judiciary make mistakes, too.

Prosecutions of health-care professionals for alleged GNM are increasing markedly. The Royal College of Surgeons of England identified ten cases in 2015 alone. This must reflect social trends – the so-called “blame culture”, in which we have come to believe that when a tragedy occurs, someone must be held responsible. In every one of these cases, of course, an individual’s life has been lost and a family left distraught; but there is a deepening sense in which society at large, and the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), in particular, appear to be disconnected from the realities of medical practice.

Malpractice investigation and prosecution are horrendous ordeals for any individual. The cumulative impact on the wider health-care environment is equally serious. In a recent survey of doctors, 85 per cent of respondents admitted that they were less likely to be candid about mistakes, given the increasing involvement of the criminal law.

This is worrying, because the best way to avoid errors in future is by open discussion with the aim of learning from what has gone wrong. And all too often, severely adverse events point less to deficiencies on the part of individuals, and more to problems with systems. At Sellu’s hospital, emergency anaesthetic cover had to be arranged ad hoc, and this contributed to delays in potentially life-saving surgery. The tragic death of his patient highlighted this; management reacted by putting a formal rota system in place.

Doctors have long accepted the burden of civil litigation, and so insure themselves to cover claims for compensation. We are regulated by the General Medical Council, which has powers to protect patients from substandard practice, including striking off poorly performing doctors. The criminal law should remain an exceptional recourse.

We urgently need a thorough review of the legal grounds for a charge of GNM, with unambiguous directions to the police, CPS and judges, before the spectre of imprisonment becomes entrenched for those whose only concern is to provide good care for their patients. As Ken Woodburn, a consultant vascular surgeon in Cornwall who was accused and acquitted of GNM in 2001, has said: “You’re only ever one error away from a manslaughter prosecution.”

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage