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.

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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories