Re: Syria, will it be ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ this time?

By Daniel Kenealy

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It seems likely that David Cameron will, on Wednesday, seek a vote in the House of Commons authorising the UK to launch air strikes in Syria. The UK is already engaged militarily in bombing campaigns against Daesh (ISIL) in Iraq, as authorised by a House of Commons vote in September 2014. Following the tragic events in Paris on 13 November 2015, President Hollande has openly called for the UK to join France and the United States in air strikes against Daesh targets in Syria.

Cameron has been here before (sort of). In August 2013 he reconvened the House of Commons for an emergency session to debate and vote on launching military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. He lost that vote. With a colleague, I explored the reasons for that loss in a paper recently published in the journal European Security (an abridged version, in policy analysis form, is here). In that paper we explored, more generally, the conditions that  facilitate parliamentary influence in foreign and security policy decision-making. The conventional wisdom is that parliaments are weak in this policy sphere, with governments dominating.

We identified five conditions that, generally, might explain parliamentary influence in foreign and security policy decision-making:

  1. Institutional powers of parliament – parliaments with greater legal/constitutional authority will have greater influence.
  2. Public opinion – when public opion is opposed to the preferences of a government, parliament may have greater influence.
  3. Cabinet type – a cabinet made up of multiple parties may struggle to present a united front and parliament may thus have greater influence.
  4. Intraparty factions – a governing party that is divided internally may enhance the influence of parliament.
  5. Prime ministerial leadership – weak prime ministerial leadership may enhance the influence of parliament.

In our study of the August 2013 vote we argued that the major factors contributing to the government’s loss were (2), (4), and (5). We found no  evidence that the growing convention that parliament gets a vote before any UK military action had much impact back in 2013, and nor did the existence of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. Intraparty factions were far more important. Of 57 Liberal Democrat MPs (at the time), 10 rebelled, 1 abstained, and 9 were present but did not vote for the government making them quasi-abstainers of some description. Of 303 Conservative MPs (at the time), 30 rebelled, 1 abstained, 2 missed the bell that signalled the vote, and 13 were quasi-abstainers. A sixth factor – the shadow of the Iraq invasion – was also seemingly influential, being identified by many MPs during their interventions in the debate at the time.

How many of those factors remain issues ahead of a possible vote this week? Let’s start with factor (2). According to YouGov public opinion is now on the side of the government. A majority supports the RAF engaging in bombing, and pluralities support the idea of ground troops being sent to Syria and Iraq to battle Daesh. Furthermore, there is evidence that the British public are beginning to regret the failure to engage more forcefully in Syria back in 2013.

Intraparty factionalism (factor (4)) remains an issue although the parliamentary arithemetic is considerably different now. The 2015 General Election delivered Cameron a majority, albeit it a slim working majority of 17. He can, apparently, bank on the 8 DUP members of the Commons to support him (there has been speculation that the government’s willngness to accommodate DUP demands in the recent ‘Fresh Start’ agreement in Northern Ireland is somehow linked to the need for DUP support in tight parliametnary situations). That boosts his working majority to 25. Assuming full attendance the Prime Minister will need 321 votes to be assured of success.

But 39 of the 44 Conservative MPs who failed to support Cameron in August 2013 are still MPs. In last weeks near three-hour ministerial statement by Cameron, several of those rebels signalled that they would, on this occasion, support the government (among them were Sarah Wollaston and Andrew Bingham). But some, prominently Julian Lewis who chairs the Commons’ Defence Committee, remain highly sceptical. By my count, not definitive I must stress, as many as 9 of those 39 continue to lean towards scepticism (or in some cases fully embrace it and cling it tight).

Further complicating the government’s calculations are 74 Conservative MPs who were newly elected in May 2015. How will they vote? Word from sources close to the party at Westminster is that most of the new intake are behind the government but that as many as 15-20 Conservative MPs might be willing to defy the Prime Minister if it comes to a vote. That makes things uncomfortably tight for the Prime Minister if he wants to win the vote with Conservative votes alone (or Conservative plus DUP votes).

The tightly-whipped operation that is the SNP will, it seems, oppose the government. The 8 Liberal Democrat MPs who remain in parliament are too small to help the Prime Minister feel comfortable calling a vote although one or two of them might support the government. Recall it was Nick Clegg, as Deputy Prime Minister, who closed for the government in the August 2013 debate. So, it seems, Cameron will have to peel off voters from Labour.

Labour are in turmoil over this vote. They played politics with the August 2013 Syria vote, plain and simple, and managed to give Cameron a bloody nose. This time it’s turning into a nightmare. The leader is opposed to the strikes, the deputy leader (Tom Watson) supportive. The shadow foreign and defence secretaries (Hilary Benn and Maria Eagle) are supportive, the shadow international development (Diane Abbott) secretary opposed. The shadow cabinet is divided on the issue although a significant majority of them support the government.

The Labour party has not yet come to a collective decision on the issue, with MPs in their constituencies this weekend taking soundings from the public. The left-wing Momentum campaign group is working hard over this weekend, and early next week, to convince Labour MPs to back Corbyn’s opposition to the strikes. That has created some turmoil within the party given that Momentum‘s relationship to Labour remains ill-defined, that the movement employs somewhat threatening tactics at times, and that it remains unclear how Momentum has reached its own collective position.

Corbyn faces a dilemma. He is previously on record saying that votes on the deployment of military force ought to be matter of conscience. That suggests that he should allow his MPs to vote as they see fit this week, i.e. an un-whipped vote. But of course Corbyn uttered those words at a time when he had no influence on what parliament, as a collective body, decided to do. Now he potentially wields a lot of power as the leader of 239 MPs, some of whom the Prime Minister may need to support him if he is to gain parliamentary approval for bombing. The easiest route for Corbyn, politically, would be to say that he continues to support the principle of a free vote and to personally argue passionately against any bombing. That would allow him to claim consistency with both principles – the principle of military action itself, and the principle of how MPs should decide.

The problem with that route is that it will almost certainly result in Cameron receiving the authority he needs from the House of Commons, i.e. the policy outcome that Corbyn wants to avoid. So the messier option is for Corbyn to try and impose a three-line whip and get Labour MPs to back his position. He wrote a letter to party members this weekend, in an attempt to circumvent shadow cabinet decision-making, which has caused some consternation within the party.

People I’ve spoken to within Labour say that between 70 and 80 Labour MPs – including many who we might associate with New Labour or the ‘modernising’ wing of the party – are willing to back a government motion for action in Syria. Those same people say that a large number of them are prepared to do that in defiance of a Corbyn whip. They would use a combination of three arguments to justify that: (a) the issue is too important to be help captive by internal Labour politics; (b) that Corbyn himself believes these votes should be conscience votes; and (c) that Corbyn is not entitled to demand unity as a career rebel. Corbyn’s choice is thus between turning the screws in an attempt to show strength as leader and run the risk of a significant rebellion against him by his own MPs; or do an unprecedented thing and argue that the official opposition has no official position on a major issue of national security. There is simply no palatable way through for him.

One thing that does seem to be far better this time around, compared to August 2013, is prime ministerial leadership and party management (factor 5). Cameron, the foreign secretary, and the defence secretary, and even the Chancellor have been working tightly as a team to make sure that as many Conservative MPs are on side as possible. The Prime Minister was on his feet for nearly 3 hours answering questions on Syria from over 100 MPs last week, and he issued a 36 page response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on Syria, in which it raised seven concerns about bombing (leave aside the fact that the response is largely unconvincing). Conservative leadership also organised an outreach campaign to MPs on the Labour benches to ensure that, this time, they’ve got their parliamentary maths right. The whips office is quietly confident that they can avoid a repeat of 2013’s embarrassment.

The case is yet another interesting one for those of us interested in foreign policy decision-making and the role of parliament in that process. But, purely on parliamentary arithmetic, this probably isn’t going to be nail-biter that August 2013 was.


Daniel Kenealy is a Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh. Along with Professor Juliet Kaarbo he has published a paper in European Security analysing the 2013 House of Commons vote on military action in Syria.

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