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

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.