Gales View  4th September 2013

The Prime Minister, following representations from many Government backbenchers and discussions with the Leader of the Opposition, last week went the “extra mile” and tabled a motion that allowed time for the UN weapons inspectors to report before instigating any military action against Syria. Most significantly, he also guaranteed a further vote in parliament before any such action could be taken.  That was not, as some have sought to present it, “an endorsement of military action”. The terms of the motion could not have been clearer and it offered  everything that those who, like myself, had expressed grave reservations about precipitate military intervention, had asked for. I believe that on that basis The Prime Minister had a right to expect that not only his own backbench – Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – but also the Leader of the Labour party and his members would support the motion.  At the eleventh hour Mr.Miliband chose, instead, to table an amendment that was, in terms, virtually identical to the Government`s motion and gave himself the “wriggle room” to renege on the undertaking that he had clearly given to the Prime Minister.  The outcome of that action may have a profound effect not only upon Mr. Miliband`s political future, insofar as he has one, but much more importantly upon the whole future of the prospects for peace in the Middle East. 
 
Had the Government motion been carried there would have been time, while awaiting the report of the international arms inspectors, to have sought not a UN Security Council resolution that would almost certainly have been blocked by Russia and China but, as I suggested during Thursday`s debate, a vote of the entire General Assembly of the United Nations – a vote that would have stood a much greater chance of success.
 
At lunchtime last Thursday, before the debate on the floor of the House of Commons, there was a meeting of the whole Conservative Party in the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House. It was attended by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, The Secretary of State for Defence, The Chief Whip, most other Ministers and, of course, the back bench.  The details of that meeting, which was held in private, are confidential but I believe that I am entitled to indicate what I myself said.  I told the Prime Minister that I was appalled by Miliband`s behaviour and that I would not support his motion. I also said that, given the distance that he had moved to meet his critics and the fact that there would be another vote before any military action, I would support the Government`s motion.  I added, though, that while I did not believe that the World could stand by and watch as the Syrian regime committed, through the use of chemical weapons, a genocide in clear breach of all international conventions I did not believe that it was good enough just to do “something”. That “something” had to be the right thing, clearly thought through with a clear objective, an assessment of its effectiveness or other implications for world peace and a clear exit strategy.  I said that nothing that I had heard from President Obama, from Mr. Cameron himself or from his Foreign Secretary, led me to believe that those terms had yet been satisfied. I said that a great deal more would have to be done to meet my concerns, and those of others, before we would support the Government in a second vote proposing military action.  That was, and remains, my position.
 
By defeating the Government at this stage, however, and by effectively ruling out any United Kingdom military intervention of any kind, we have, I think wholly unnecessarily, weakened our own position in the World, undermined our negotiating position and that of our allies and made further oppression of the women and children of Syria more likely, the prospects for peace in the Middle East more remote and an already bad situation infinitely more dangerous. Where there should have been political consensus, with a view to working together towards an acceptable and effective proposal for a course of political and enhanced humanitarian  action there was, instead, a squalid scramble for political advantage and, in some cases, a settling of scores.  This was not, in my view, “The House of Commons at its best” as some commentators have suggested. It was a tawdry episode from which few, in the light of history, will take much credit.

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