LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron says Britain must join the international coalition launching airstrikes in Syria. Unfortunately for those welcoming British support in the battle against ISIS—this is a promise he’s made before.
On Monday, Cameron laid a single pink rose outside the Bataclan concert hall where 89 people were gunned down by terrorists. He then told President François Hollande that Britain would stand shoulder to shoulder with the French in their latest military mission.
“I firmly support the action that President Hollande has taken to strike [ISIS] in Syria and it is my firm conviction that Britain do the same,” he said.
President Obama will remember that a similar expression of conviction held in 2013 was overturned—leaving Cameron humiliated and forcing Obama to retreat from his “red line” on Syria. After privately agreeing that Britain and America would strike against the Assad regime during a series of phone calls with Obama that summer, Cameron recalled parliament from recess to rubber-stamp his decision.
In a stunning twist, the House of Commons said “no.” It was the first time a British prime minister had lost a vote on waging war since the American Revolutionary War.
“He’d got himself into a right mess,” Dai Havard, a former Labour member of the Defense Committee, told The Daily Beast. “It seems prime ministers go abroad and say different things. Tony Blair used to do it for the Iraq War and he came back and you would say, ‘Hold on Tone, when did you make that decision?’”
Cameron’s bellicose statements made in the shadow of the atrocities in France were understandable but his apparent certainty that British action would follow risks alienating the Members of Parliament he will need to support him.
“I think he’ll have pissed people off with that,” said Havard. “It’s not clever politics.”
Once he returned from Paris, Cameron changed tack, explaining that he would ask parliament to support strikes against ISIS in Syria—Britain already bombs targets in Iraq—during a statement in parliament on Thursday.
“I will make the case for Britain to join our international allies in going after [ISIS] in their headquarters in Syria, not just in Iraq,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “I will explain how such action would be one element of a comprehensive and long term strategy to defeat [ISIS] in parallel with major international effort to bring an end to the war in Syria.”
A vote is likely to follow at the start of December. Having promised to help Hollande, and Obama, in Syria, Cameron will be desperate to avoid another round of international embarrassment.
It’s not just his reputation at stake. As Paris and Washington rush into each other’s arms, Britain risks being crushed between them and minimized yet further on the global stage.
The outcome of a vote on military action in Syria is far from guaranteed. Cameron’s narrow election victory in May left him with a majority of just 12, and it is unclear how the other parties will vote.
Since Cameron’s last attempt to win support for airstrikes in Syria, the main opposition party has been taken over by an anti-war campaigner.
The new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, only quit his role as chairman of the Stop the War coalition in September. The protest group’s website is asking: “When will Britain learn that more war is not the answer to defeating ISIS?”
Corbyn has left the organization but remains wedded to the same pacifist outlook. He criticized France’s revenge bomb attacks on ISIS last week.
“We have to be careful. One war doesn’t necessarily bring about peace, it often can bring yet more conflicts, more mayhem and more loss,” he said.
Labour’s shadow defense secretary insists that it is “conceivable” that Corbyn would support airstrikes in Syria but that seems unlikely. What is certain is that many of Labour’s Members of Parliament would resign from Corbyn’s team if he tried to make them follow his lead.
With his authority already in tatters, it looks as though Corbyn will have to tell his party members they can vote however they like or face mass resignations.
Just as chaos reigned at Westminster in August 2013, it seems Labour Party disarray will shape the outcome of the next vote. Blair is still vilified for leading Britain into war in Iraq but Cameron is learning that an inability to deliver votes back home makes his words ring hollow on the international stage.