An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter holds a position on the front line in Khazer. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The decision on whether to intervene in Iraq now rests in Labour’s hands

Cameron will need Miliband's support to win a vote on military action. But all the signs are that he will get it. 

It is just 13 months since David Cameron became the first prime minister to lose a vote on a matter of peace and war since 1782. After his defeat over potential military action in Syria, 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 a year later, Westminster is again contemplating the use of force, this time to halt the murderous advance of Islamic State. The assertion of the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, that the UK would play a “leading role” in the coalition assembled by the US was the clearest signal yet that parliament will soon be asked to give its approval to air strikes against the group in Iraq. One Downing Street strategist pointedly notes that Tornado fighter jets are already performing reconnaissance missions in the country – and they could easily shift to an offensive role.

While acknowledging the legal, technical and political obstacles, No 10 isn’t even dismissing possible action in Syria. Conservative sources downplay suggestions that parliament could be recalled as early as 25 September (“We’re not at that stage yet”) but some Tory MPs can already see the political advantages. “It would blow the Ukip conference out of the water,” notes one with Machiavellian relish.

After Barack Obama’s skilful forging of an international coalition, one that crucially includes ten Arab states, Cameron’s task is to construct a domestic equivalent. Having broken one of the first rules of parliamentary politics last year – that prime ministers shouldn’t call votes they are going to lose – the Conservatives are acting with greater diligence this time. Party whips, now led by Michael Gove, have canvassed opinion in the tea rooms and have concluded that Cameron’s own side, even when combined with the Liberal Democrats, will not be big enough to guarantee him victory.

Some of the 30 Tory MPs who voted against intervention in Syria are prepared publicly to support military action against Islamic State. One of the rebels, Sarah Wollaston, tells me: “Last time round, we didn’t have Arab League backing and we do this time. The intervention has to be led by local and regional powers; otherwise, it’s just seen as a vendetta against Muslims.” But most Tory rebels remain unmoved. John Redwood, who abstained on the government motion last year, bluntly says: “I am not persuaded that we should be bombing Iraq or Syria.”

It is Labour that will determine whether Cameron becomes the fourth successive prime minister to preside over military action in Mesopotamia. After thwarting the PM last summer, in what the Tories denounced as an act of betrayal (Labour sources maintain that no “blank cheque” was ever signed), the opposition is regarded with suspicion and enmity. But there is as yet no evidence that the two parties’ positions will diverge. Beyond opposing the deployment of “boots on the ground” (as the government does), Labour strategists emphasise they are “ruling nothing out”. One tells me the party has adopted a “bipartisan approach”, resisting the temptation to seek political advantage from the government’s often conflicting messages. Ed Miliband has supported the arming of the Kurds, British logistical support and, most significantly, targeted air strikes against Islamic State by the US.

Less than eight months before a general election, when partisan tensions are normally at their highest, some in Labour are even moved to rare praise for Cameron. One shadow cabinet minister commends his “patient multilateralism”, and another senior figure notes: “This is not a macho moment like in August 2013. He’s not doing grandstanding.”

Some of the loudest interventionist voices come from the opposition benches. Peter Hain, the former Labour cabinet minister, tells me that the government should consider “opening back-channels” to the Assad regime in order to enable air strikes in Syria. Ann Clwyd, who served as Tony Blair’s special envoy to Iraq, says that it is “irresponsible” to rule out the use of ground troops ultimately to repel Islamic State. Were Miliband to oppose air strikes, he would face a rebellion greater than that over Syria, when four Labour MPs (Clwyd, Ben Bradshaw, Meg Munn and John Woodcock) refused to vote against the government motion.

His likely support for them should not come as a surprise. Not since 1935, when Ernest Bevin denounced his leader George Lansbury for “hawking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”, has Labour been a pacifist party. Unlike the extra-parliamentary left, Michael Foot was resolute in his support for the Falklands war in 1982. And though labelled as a peacenik due to his opposition to the 2003 Iraq invasion and his sceptical stance on Syria, Miliband, too, stands in this internationalist tradition. In March 2011, invoking Britain’s failure to act during the Spanish civil war, he supported intervention in Libya to prevent a massacre of the innocents in Benghazi.

Rather than the dawn of a new age of isolationism, the Syria vote is now identifiable as an accidental pause. After Cameron’s defeat, senior Labour figures confessed that they were surprised by his abrupt rejection of military action. Those events raised the bar for parliamentary approval of intervention. But it is a bar that the Prime Minister, humbled by experience and shorn of bluster, is now in a position to clear. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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