Rhetorical gales howled through Westminster over the Syria vote, but the landscape is unaltered

It was the story of this parliament in one act: a debate that left the problems it addressed unresolved, while diminishing the leaders who took part.

Britain’s retreat from military intervention in Syria has no proud author. The parliamentary vote that apparently settled the matter was a humiliation for the Prime Minister but also a shock to those who humiliated him. Most of the Tory MPs who defied their whips thought they were dabbling in principled protest. None of them thought they were hijacking British foreign policy. “Anyone who claims they weren’t surprised by the result is fibbing,” says one Tory backbencher about his rebellious colleagues.
Even as the votes were being counted, Labour MPs filing through the “no” lobby expected a government victory. The opposition’s goal was to rebuke the PM for adventurism and force him into greater deference to parliament and the UN Security Council. Ed Miliband did not think the debate would end with David Cameron sweeping intervention off the table with a petulant flourish.
None of the parties has a policy of standing idly by as Syria rips itself to shreds. Both Miliband and Cameron say Bashar al-Assad has committed atrocious breaches of international law. There is almost certainly a majority of MPs open, in theory, to endorsing an armed international rebuke. Yet parliament has rejected British participation. A vote that was hailed on the night as a historic assertion of legislative sovereignty now looks like an accident. The UK’s official stance towards Damascus is a policy orphan, unclaimed and unloved.
No shortage of blame is flying around to compensate for the lack of credit being taken. Cameron loyalists have mounted an effective campaign to steer debate away from questions over the Prime Minister’s judgement and towards what George Osborne called “national soul-searching” about Britain’s readiness to be a premier league player in world affairs.
In Downing Street’s version of events, the Tory leader, brimming with moral courage and transatlantic solidarity, has been betrayed by wicked Labour leaders present and past. Equal scorn is heaped on Tony Blair for spoiling the public’s appetite for armed interventions and on Miliband for exploiting that shrivelling of ambition to score points.
It is clever crisis management. What should have been the story of Cameron’s crumbling authority became a challenge to Westminster’s collective moral fibre, which in turn became doubts over whether the Labour leader has what it takes to make tough prime ministerial decisions – an attack line the Tories have been rehearsing for months.
Helpfully for Cameron, there are people on the Labour side who struggle to disagree with No 10’s account of the story. The murmur among some opposition MPs, including shadow ministers, is that the idea of atoning for what many on the left see as the worst sin of Blairism – bamboozling the nation into the Iraq war – seduced Miliband and the move has backfired.
Before the summer, the Labour leader’s internal critics were fretting about his lack of definition. The test for the autumn, they said, would be for Miliband to make some very public choices on tricky issues, express them with conviction and stick with them. Yet here he is, on a matter of life and death, advertising himself to the world as a man of convoluted inaction.
Miliband’s allies expected that charge from the Tories but are dismayed to hear it echoed on their own side. Defenders of the Labour leader in the shadow cabinet point out that the true failure of leadership in recent weeks belongs to Cameron. After all, it was the Prime Minister who prematurely signed Britain up to military strikes, in a phone call with Barack Obama, and then tried to bounce parliament into endorsing them without offering a credible account of what he hoped to achieve.
Besides, it is coalition parties that command a Commons majority and whose undisciplined MPs killed Cameron’s motion. The leader of the opposition’s job is not to make up the numbers when government whips get their sums wrong. It can hardly have been a surprise that the Iraq precedent was a factor in the debate. Even Tories who voted with the government say it made them hesitate. It is curious that the PM was so ill prepared to allay those concerns.
More baffling still is the role of Nick Clegg, whose party fought the last election draped in anti-war piety. The Liberal Democrat leader seems to want equal shares in Miliband’s reservations about firing missiles into Syria and Cameron’s contempt for Miliband when he acts on those reservations.
The temptation, when Westminster is in a state of extreme agitation, is to look for things that will never be the same again. If parliament has decided it doesn’t ever want British military muscle flexed against dictators, that is a significant moment. But that isn’t what MPs now claim they meant to say at all. The lesson of recent years is that when British politics promises never to be the same again, the same again is precisely what it turns out to be. Rhetorical gales howl through Westminster, leaving the landscape unaltered. Cameron is still a chancer with too much confidence in his own powers of persuasion and too shallow a base in his party. Miliband has proven once again to be better at political machination than his enemies expect and worse at inspiration than his friends claim.
As in previous years, the two candidates to be prime minister after 2015 are approaching the annual conference season with many of their supporters unable to muster reasons why they should have the top job beyond the lack of an obvious alternative. Labour and Tory MPs again find themselves urging their leaders to rise above the mediocrity to which every precedent says they are confined. The vote on Syria was a grimly symbolic prelude to the months ahead. It was the story of this parliament in one act: a debate that left the problems it addressed unresolved, while diminishing the leaders who took part. Nobody won. 
David Cameron Leaves Downing Street on August 29, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide