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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories