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

Getty
Show Hide image

Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496