Sometimes a political defeat can leave a leader stronger rather than weaker

David Cameron didn't get his way with Syria. It may seem counterintuitive, but this won't reflect badly on him.

There is a recognised term for victories that are, in effect, defeats. In the classical world, a Molossian king of Epirus famously defeated the Romans at Heraclea and Asculum. Yet his losses were so heavy that he is said to have remarked: “One more such victory and we are lost.” His name was Pyrrhus and over the centuries the concept of the Pyrrhic victory has hardened into a cliché.
 
We lack a similarly familiar idea to describe a victory that is dressed up as a defeat. That is how history may judge David Cameron’s “defeat” in the Commons over intervention in Syria. It was an inverse Pyrrhic victory. It leaves him stronger.
 
The vote was initially interpreted as a crisis, even a humiliation. As Cameron entered Downing Street that evening, the question shouted at him by the television media was predictable: “Have you lost control, Prime Minister?” It was a revealing assumption – that leadership is always about ruthless executive grip, and that failure to execute a preferred plan inevitably leaves a leader weakened and diminished.
 
Cameron’s defeat, however, already looks very different from that snap assessment. We saw the Prime Minister express his convictions openly and passionately. Yet we also watched him listening to the voice of parliament, which emerged strengthened and revitalised. A PM behaving bravely while operating in a strongly democratic parliament: should this be remembered as a crisis?
 
One Conservative MP told me how his feelings about Cameron’s performance have changed over the past few days. “At the time, as I left the chamber, I thought, ‘He was underwhelming. Cameron can do better than that.’ Looking back now, I can see how it has strengthened him.” Another Tory friend of mine, usually fiercely critical of the Prime Minster, telephoned me after Cameron’s defeat on Syria. “For the first time, I felt truly impressed and I felt that from my gut.”
 
I think a sense of respect for Cameron’s manner, if not his goals, was shared by non- Tories. It was obvious that he was passionate and personally convinced. More important, it was equally clear that he was not prepared to dress up his convictions as though they were certain facts. He acknowledged the uncertainties and drew attention to the unknowns, allowing his case to hang on its own strengths rather than resorting to overstretched rhetoric and political bullying. And he lost. Instead of assuming that as strategic failure, we might consider his strength in allowing the case to speak for itself.
 
I admit this idea that Cameron’s defeat may turn out to be an auspicious one depends on how central liberal interventionism is to his political philosophy. Is interventionist Atlanticism Cameron’s defining characteristic? If so, the vote probably was a defeat. Or is scepticism Cameron’s central quality: a pragmatic reluctance to be seduced by a simplistic and overarching political idea? I suspect that the latter is closer to Cameron’s deepest instincts. And these have been well served by his handling of the vote on Syria.
 
Behind the criticism of Cameron’s “humiliation” lies a common mistake about what constitutes strong leadership. The soapopera approach to political life is based on the premise that leaders must always announce their goals and be judged simply according to their ability to deliver them: win or lose, failure or “successful policy delivery”. This is part of the professional mantra of winning at all costs, as though leadership were merely a set of ruthlessly implemented decisions. A recurrent, Blairite critique of Cameron is that he is “bad at politics”, even “amateurish”.
 
This reductive concept of “strike rate”, gauging a leader’s success by the proportion of victories he notches up, misses the central and mysterious quality of true leadership – judgement. And judgement applies as much to the way a leader pursues his decisions as it does to the positions he reaches in the first place.
 
The best leader I encountered in the sports world always took the same care about how he presented his case as he did about reaching it. Debating whether to pick a particular player, sometimes he would allow himself to be swayed by the collective opinion of the selection panel, sometimes he would strongly seek to change the view of the majority and very occasionally he would insist that getting his own way was non-negotiable. In effect, he had at his disposal three or four ascending gears of conviction, which, consciously or not, he would select to suit the situation.
 
Good leadership is not always about finding a position and then rationally pursuing it to its limits. Often, the appropriate means will emerge only as you begin the process of achieving your goal. To adapt Auden slightly, “How can I know how to persuade until I see what I say?”
 
The win-at-all-costs mentality assumes that strong leadership always demands making the best possible case to win an argument. Not so. You make the case with appropriate certainty. For a leader to show true self-belief, he must allow for gradations of confidence and demonstrate a rhetorical and strategic range that reflects a healthy breadth of intellectual positions.
 
In the case of Syria, Cameron did not have enough certainty to win – or, perhaps, he had just the right amount. A stronger case, less truthfully argued, might have won the day. And lost over the long term.
 
There is something untrustworthy, as we saw with Tony Blair, about someone too ready and eager to swing his entire moral and intellectual weight behind every decision, as though the fact of having decided inevitably makes the case decisive.
 
During the debates that led to Cameron’s election as Tory leader in 2005, David Davis made one stinging point, “This is not the moment for another Tony Blair.”
 
It wasn’t. And Cameron isn’t.
 
Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99) 
Vladimir Putin welcomes David Cameron at the start of the G20 summit, where discussions over Syria dominated. Image: Getty

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

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

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.