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

Michael Cooper/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The players make their mistakes on the pitch – I make mine on the page

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up.

I was a bit humiliated and ashamed and mortified last week because of letters in this magazine about one of my recent columns. Wait till I see the Correspondence editor: there must be loads of nice letters, yet he or she goes and prints not just one, but two picking me up on my mistakes. By the left.

But mainly, my reaction was to laugh. Typical, huh, I’ve gone through life spelling things wrong, with dates dodgy, facts fictional – will I ever learn?

John Lennon did not use a watch. He maintained that he had people on the staff who would tell the time. I don’t wear a watch, either, but for different reasons. I want to get my wrists brown and I hate carrying anything.

By the same milk token, I don’t worry about my spelling. Like Lennon, I expect others to clear up after me. Surely the subs should have spotted it was a typo, that it is 64 years since 1951, not 54 as I wrote? What do they do all day? The other mistake was about replays in the League Cup: too boring to repeat, you would only yawn.

I usually try to get the spelling right the first time I use a word, then bash on, letting it come out any old way, intending to correct it later. Is it Middlesbrough or Middlesborough? Who cares? I’ll check later. Then I forget.

I was so pleased when Patrick Vieira left Arsenal. I found those ten seasons a nightmare, whenever I realised his surname was lumbering into vieiw (I mean “view”). Why couldn’t I memorise it? Mental laziness. The same reason that I don’t know the phone numbers of any of my children, or the correct spelling of my grandchildren’s names, Amarisse and Siena. I have to ask my wife how many Ss and how many Ns. She knows everything. The birthday of every member of the royal family? Go on, ask her.

I might be lazy on piddling stuff such as spelling but I like to think my old brain is still agile. I have three books on the go which are hellishly complicated. I have the frameworks straight in my head but I don’t want to cram anything else in.

It can be a bit embarrassing when writing about football, though. Since sport was invented, fans have been making lists, trotting out facts, showing off their information. As a boy, I was a whizz on the grounds of all 92 League clubs, knew the nicknames of all the clubs. It’s what you did. Comics like Adventure produced pretty colour charts full of such facts. I don’t remember sitting down and learning it all. It just went in, because I wanted it to go in.

Today, the world of football is even madder on stats than it ever was. I blame computers and clever graduates who get taken on by the back pages with nothing else to do but create stats. And TV, with its obsession with possession, as if it meant anything.

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up. Not just the score but who was playing. When Wayne Rooney or whoever is breaking records, or not, my eyes go glazed, refusing to take in the figures. When I read that Newcastle are again winless in their first seven League games now, I start turning the pages. If I get asked who won the Cup in 1923, my immediate answer is HowthefeckdoIknow. Hold on, I do know that. It was the first Cup final at Wembley, won by Bolton Wanderers. I remember that, having been there. I don’t know the dates of any other Cup final winners. England’s World Cup win? That was 1966 and I really was there.

I love football history (I’ve written three books about it) but it’s the players and the history of the clubs, the boots and strips, development in the laws, that’s what I enjoy knowing. Spellings and dates – hmm, I do always have to think. Did the Football League begin in 1888 or 1885? If I pause for half a second, I can work it out. Professional football came in first, which must have been 1885, so the Football League came later. Thus the answer is 1888. Bingo. Got it.

But more often than not, I guess, or leave it out. So, sorry about those mistakes. And if you’ve spotted any today, do keep it to yourself. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

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