The Tories and Labour agree: there won't be a second vote on Syria

As dismaying as it may be to interventionists, both parties have decided that the wisest political choice is to move on.

Barack Obama's decision to seek Congressional approval for military action against Syria, rather than launch immediate missile strikes, has raised the question of whether a second parliamentary vote on UK involvement could be held. This could take place after the UN weapons inspectors have reported on the Ghouta massacre and after the Security Council and Congress (on 9 September) have voted. The irony of Thursday's outcome is that there was a hypothetical majority for not ruling military action out (Labour's position) even if there was clearly not one for ruling it in.

But in their appearances on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, both Douglas Alexander and George Osborne stated that a second vote would not be held. Alexander emphasised that Cameron had "given his word to the British people that the UK will not participate in military action in Syria". He added that he was "intruiged" by Cameron's decision to rule out military action after the defeat (Labour sources tell me that they did not expect him to do so) but that staging another vote would raise questions over his "judgement" and that this would "weigh heavily on the public and parliament".

One option would be for Cameron to call Labour's bluff by overriding these concerns and putting forward a new motion on Syria, but Osborne, who knows the PM's mind, ruled this out. He said he disagreed with those who argued that a "bit more evidence" would change MPs' minds and concluded: "Parliament has spoken. The Labour Party has played this opportunistically. The Conservative MPs and the Liberal Democrats who could not support us – they have a deep scepticism about military involvement. I don't think another UN report, or whatever, would make the difference. Of course I wanted us to be part of a potential military response. Now that is just not going to be open to us."

For both parties, there is no political benefit to be gained from prolonging the question of whether the UK could participate in military action. A second parliamentary defeat would be immensely damaging to Cameron and he is under pressure from senior Tories to refocus on the domestic concerns that will determine the outcome in 2015. For Labour, there is no political incentive to challenge Cameron's decision to rule out intervention. Ed Miliband has narrowly avoided a split in his own party (shadow transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick resigned before the vote and I'm told by a party source that at least five other frontbenchers were prepared to do so) and, after a woeful summer, has regained authority as the man who prevented a precipitous rush to war.

As dismaying as it may be to principled interventionists, both parties have decided that the best thing to do is to move on.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496