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.

New Statesman
Vladimir Putin welcomes David Cameron at the start of the G20 summit, where discussions over Syria dominated. Image: Getty
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)