Where Miliband leads, Cameron follows. That is the political upshot of tonight’s events. Everything we heard from Downing Street and William Hague earlier today suggested that MPs would vote tomorrow on whether to authorise British military action against Syria, despite the UN warning that its weapons inspectors would not complete their work for at least four days. But a few hours ago, after speculation that Labour was preparing to abstain, Miliband made his move.
He announced on Twitter that the party would table an amendment to the government’s (then non-existent) motion requiring Cameron to return to the Commons to consult MPs after the UN team had reported on the Ghouta massacre. He added: “Parliament must tomorrow agree criteria for action, not write a blank cheque.” Labour sources subsequently briefed that were the amendment not accepted, the party would vote against the motion.
At 5:15pm, according to Labour’s account, Cameron “totally ruled out” a second vote. But just an hour and a half later, confronted by an incipient rebellion on the Tory backbenches, he blinked. The government motion was published and guaranteed that a “further vote of the House of Commons” would be held before any “direct British involvement”. In line with Labour’s position it stated that “[This House] agrees that the United Nations Secretary General should ensure a briefing to the United Nations Security Council immediately upon the completion of the team’s initial mission; Believes that the United Nations Security Council must have the opportunity immediately to consider that briefing and that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken.”
Cameron is now faced with the embarrassment of recalling parliament to hold a vote on a vote. Had he proceeded with less haste, MPs could have returned to Westminster next week as planned and voted after the UN inspectors had reported.
For Miliband, the question remains how he will respond once the evidence has been presented. He has merely postponed, rather than obviated, this dilemma. But whether or not Labour eventually supports intervention, few would dispute, after the experience of Iraq, that is prudent to wait until all the facts are in. A sceptical public, rightly, expects nothing less. In an inversion of Blair, he has ensured that the policy is shaped around the facts, rather than the facts around the policy and insulated himself from the charge that the inspectors “should have been given more time”.
By seeking to proceed from action to evidence, rather than from evidence to action, Cameron misjudged the mood of both Labour and his own MPs. Tonight, it is Miliband who looks like both the stronger and the smarter leader.