The Paris attacks have revived the debate over whether the UK should participate in air strikes against Isis in Syria. But they have not changed it. Labour remains opposed to intervention, leaving David Cameron insufficiently confident of winning a Commons vote. Mindful of his defeat in 2013, the Prime Minister is not prepared to act without a guarantee of victory. There is no legal requirement for him to consult parliament but since Iraq, votes on military intervention have been part of our unwritten constitution.
Cameron told the Today programme this morning: “I support the action in Syria. We are part of the enablers of that. It is happening anyway. The question is should we go further and join that action. I have always said that we should. Isil don’t recognise the border between Iraq and Syria and neither should we. But I need to build the argument, I need to take it to parliament, I need to convince more people. We won’t hold that vote unless we can see that parliament would endorse that action, because to fail on this would be damaging – it is not a question of damaging the government; it is a question of not damaging our country and its reputation.”
It is understandable that many speak of a gulf between Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn, who opposes military intervention in Syria and has opposed every action in recent history. But it is the degree of consensus between them that is most notable today. Both men agree that air strikes against Isis will be largely futile without a political settlement in Syria. Corbyn told ITV’s Lorraine: “I am not saying sit round the table with Isis, I am saying bring about a political settlement in Syria which will help then to bring some kind of unity government – technical government – in Syria.”
Cameron similarly recognised that a political solution, rather than a military one, was required (a notable shift of emphasis), telling Today: “Of course you can’t really deal with so called Islamic State unless you get a political settlement in Syria which allows you then to permanently degrade and destroy that organisation. It’s still got a long way to go, but there are some hopeful signs in that the meeting of foreign ministers, including the Russians and the Iranians, as well as the Americans, the British and the French, has made some progress and I hope to have some discussions with Vladimir Putin this morning”.
As supporters and opponents of intervention trade rhetorical blows, both leaders have recognised the limits of that debate.