David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron wants airstrikes in Syria - but fears Labour opposition

The PM believes that there is "no legal barrier" to action, but wants to "proceed on the basis of consensus". 

When David Cameron last summer became the first prime minister to lose a vote on a matter of peace and war since 1782, many spoke as if an epochal shift comparable to Suez had occurred. William Hague, the then foreign secretary, considered resigning and told colleagues that he didn’t want to represent "a country that is not prepared to act". Paddy Ashdown lamented that the UK had lurched "towards isolationism". One Conservative MP told me after the vote: "We won’t be involved in military action for the foreseeable future and certainly not in this parliament."

But just 13 months later, parliament will vote today in favour of UK airstrikes against Isis in Iraq. Britain will demonstrate that it has not entered a new age of isolationism, and Cameron will regain some of the standing that he lost last year. But the issue of Syria has loomed large in the opening stages of the debate. To many MPs, there is little purpose in targeting Isis in Iraq without also doing so in its neighbour. Ken Clarke warned that the group's advance meant the border between the two countries was now merely a "theoretical line on the map" , while Peter Hain declared that allowing Isis to regroup in Syria after strikes in Iraq was "no answer". 

Cameron, who has pledged to give MPs a separate vote on any action in Syria, made it clear that he believes there is a case for action in the country, and that there is "no legal barrier". But he emphasised that he wanted to "proceed on the basis of consensus". In other words, he feared that he would not win Labour's support for intervention in Syria (unlike in the case of Iraq) and would risk a repeat of last summer's humiliation. 

He told MPs: “I do believe there is a strong case for us to do more in Syria. But I did not want to bring a motion to the House today which there wasn’t consensus for. It is better if our country can proceed on the basis of consensus. In this house there are many concerns about doing more in Syria. And I understand that.

“I don’t believe there is a legal barrier, because I think the legal advice is clear that – were we to act or others to act – there is a legal basis. But it is true to say that the Syrian situation is more complicated than the Iraqi situation. It is more complicated because of the presence of the brutal dictator Assad, it is more complicated because of the state of the civil war.”

In his response, Miliband raised three concerns over strikes in Syria. He argued that while there was "a strong legal argument for action" under Article 51 of the UN Charter, it would "be better" to seek a UN Security Council Resolution (which Russia would almost certainly veto); that the mission would require regional ground troops; and that "a lot more work" needed to be done on a "route map" for action. While not ruling out intervention, he has again set tough conditions of the kind that prevented British involvement last year. 

Milband also offered five succinct reasons why airstrikes in Iraq were not comparable to the 2003 war: the intervention was about supporting a democratic state, not overturning a regime; there was no dispute about its legal basis; it was a last resort; there was broad international support; and the use of British ground troops had been ruled out by the government. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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