Coffee House

Cameron’s historic defeat

29 August 2013

David Cameron has lost far more than the argument over Syria. He put his credibility on the line tonight, and lost. This is not just an extraordinary defeat but a spectacular political misjudgment, as I say in my Daily Telegraph column tomorrow. There will be a great many more questions asked tomorrow: from a sleepy summer recess, Cameron has conjured up one of the most spectacular parliamentary defeats in modern political history. The first such foreign policy defeat since 1782. What on earth was No10 thinking? That it could depend on Ed Miliband’s support? (He spoke abysmally today, by the way, offering a “sequenced roadmap”, and his amendment was defeated. There are only losers in today’s vote.)

A third of the Tory party is opposed to a Syria strike, the public is against it by a ratio of two-to-one. And yet still, the Prime Minister of a hung parliament tries to ram through a vote for military action using the same methods and logic as Iraq. Their own dodgy-looking dossier. The own Attorney General legal advice (or sections of it), claiming that it’s all okay really. And a Defence Secretary who went on Newsnight and actually spoke about taking action against “Saddam” rather than Bashar Assad. The whole thing looked like an Iraqi Groundhog Day.


I am personally sympathetic to Cameron’s arguments about Britain’s role in the world.But to force a vote in this way, with such shoddy preparation and so little forethought, will outrage Cameron’s allies. Why gamble all this political capital in such a way? Make no mistake: this is a foreign policy vote, but the result weakens the government’s overall authority. Needlessly. All that political progress made over summer: wiped out. Already, Ed Miliband is trying to rewrite today’s history in a way that involves Plucky Ed standing up to America. The same Ed who sounded all up for a Syrian strike in interviews on Tuesday morning.

As the leading article in this week’s Spectator says, an attack in Syria would be a war without a purpose. The more questions asked about this, the more questions arise. And it was the absence of answers to very good questions which, I think, sunk Cameron today. His case for intervention was not very well thought-through. Holes were picked in it all day, by everyone from Jack Straw to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But there are always doubts when countries go to war. The biggest question is one of trust. Cameron was asking for that trust today, and he didn’t get it. He took a massive gamble, and suffered a massive defeat. It was one from which he will, I suspect, take some time to recover.

More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us now.

  • Algernon the Sceptic

    From the online polls I have seen, 90% of the British public are against intervention in Syria.

  • justejudexultionis


  • Dougie

    Miliband’s position may be the correct one – but why did he take until 5.15pm on Wednesday to arrive at it? I’m eagerly awaiting his comments when Assad carries out his next nerve gas attack on civilians. He won’t be looking so cocky then.

  • Jonny Castro

    There was some Tory female MP who spoke a passable mockney but multi-tasking this with using her brain to argue the case caused her to stop the glottal-stops, as it were and a rather nice RP accent emerged. Ozzy Osbourne does this. They’re frauds these spoilt tory MPs In fact, can we have rocker Ozzy to be in charge? At least he made his money by hard graft.

    They’ll get in of course, this was is a mere bagatelle – house prices are surging dontchaknow!

    • moe_howard

      very soppy comment

  • Urban Guerilla

    Take some time to recover? No chance. Cameron’s authority was already limited. It will not recover.
    Whatever criticism is levelled at Miliband, he called this one right. Once again Cameron is undone by arrogance. He underestimated his opponent and disregarded his backbenchers.

  • jatrius

    1782? What about 1855?

    • El_Sid

      Both Aberdeen and North resigned soon after.

  • madasafish

    Political class far removed from electorate – discuss…

  • True Bred Pomponian

    Apparently this was driven by Sam Cam. I’m surprised nobody’s mentioning the fact that Cameron is a pussy-whipped prime minister.

  • george

    Charles Krauthammer, the great American political knower of our day (outside of Harvey Mansfield, but never mind), on Obama the No-Show Flame-Thrower:

    • jatrius

      Rararara! Just what we need,- more uncritical kneejerk dogwhistling. That’ll really unpick the knot.

      • george

        I think you’ll find that Krauthammer is anything but uncritical. But then, you’d have to listen to what he says/read him.

    • Urban Guerilla

      Nope, America is like Frank Bruno. Big, powerful, predictable, slow. The Taliban float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Just like the Vietcong did.
      And in that civil war, they dies on BOTH sides, that is how civil wars go. More people turned up as spectators (yes, really, the battles were a spectator sport) than soldiers.

    • Nick

      I’d love to support the yanks but the problem is,they start too many wars.

      • george

        Sounds like blaming the victim to me. Who else has saddled up to defend freedom as effectively in the world for the past 100 years and more?

    • Ganpati23

      “We slayed our own to slay slavery, to be true at last to our founding principles.”

      Hilarious. Yank historical revisionism.

      Your founding principles allowed slavery. The wealth of your nation was based on slavery, via the Southern plantations and the New England economy growing simply to supply and service those plantations and those in the West Indies.

      Washington was a slave-owner.

      Your country’s founding principles were land-theft, slavery and genocide. Your cherished ‘founding freedoms’ were simply the freedom to persue these goals without interference.

      Get a grip.

      • george

        Yawn, the Leftist ingratitude and selective finger-pointing never changes. Every society has had injustice: ours in the West (exemplified by America, which did in the end at the cost of half a million lives fulfill the promise of its Constitution) is the one that departed from the usual rule of tyranny and oppression for all but the very few.

        • Ganpati23

          Leftist ingratitude? The points I raised are part of the accepted historical consensus on both sides of the Atlantic. So which ones are you disagreeing with?

          1) That while slavery was never legal in GB (see the Somerset case 1774), it was the basis of the North Atlantic economy, with New England providing the goods and services for the American tobacco and West Indian sugar plantations.

          2) That 4 of the first 5 presidents owned slaves while in office. That 4 of the next 5 owned slaves, 2 while in office. Of the next 5, 2 owned slaves while in office. Of the next 5, two owned slaves but not while in office.

          3) And half the delegates at the Constitutional Convention were slave owners. So the US was founded and run by slave owners and even the non-slave owning citizens in the North owed their prosperity to slavery.

          4) The concept of ‘terra nullis’ was used to justify land theft on a continent-wide scale. Those whose land you stole didn’t become citizens until 1924.

          5) The 1763 Royal Proclamation drew a boundary along the Appalachian Mountains which forbade settlers stealing any more land to the West of the line. This is one of the major causes of the War of Independence. The fact that you wanted to steal yet more land.

          6) 12m Indians in 1500 had become less than 1/4m by 1900. The 1830 Removal Act was systematic ethnic cleansing – genocide for land theft with the destruction of villages and thousands dying on forced marches. This led to destruction of most of the Cherokee population in the 1838 Trail of Tears.

          7) You stole their livestock as well as their land. In 1800 there were 40m buffalo (which would be considered as Indian owned if they had the same concept of property rights as us.) Between 1830 and 1888 there was the systematic destruction of the two remaining plain herds and by 1895 they were practically extinct.

          ….. Now, all of the above are accepted facts. Which of these do you dispute?

          I will also add the following point which doesn’t have historical consensus and I admit that I have no way of knowing whether it’s true or not. But it comes from 4 US academics in three different pieces. The first from Churchill, the second from Stiffarm and Lane and the third from Staunton, though they cite the
          journal of a contemporary at Fort Clark, Francis A.

          In 1836-40, The US army started distributing blankets to the Indians which came from the small-pox quarantine in the St. Louis army hospital. When the first Indians started showing signs of the disease, the St. Peters Post Surgeon post surgeon advised those
          camped near the post to scatter and seek”sanctuary”
          in the villages of healthy relatives.

          The Madans were virtually exterminated with approx 100k deaths.

          As I say, this is disputed, but the rest of my facts are not.

          So unless every US academic is a lefty, your post makes no sense. Likewise, for what should the millions of slaves and Indians be grateful?

          So perhaps you’d like to state which of the above points you dispute and provide supporting evidence.

          More than twice as many Americans died fighting for slavery than died fighting against Prussian militarism in WW1.

          Your country was founded on, and derived its wealth from, slavery, land theft and genocide.

          How can you argue that these millions of slaves and Indians were not subjected to tyranny and oppression?

          I suggest you study a bit of history as opposed to simply accepting your nation’s creation myth.

          I look forward to your reply.

          • george

            I didn’t read your rant but will only say this: Where’s your litany against Cuba? Venezuela? Mexico? France? Or any other country.

            • Ganpati23

              If you didn’t read it, how can you comment on the post?

              But the original post that I was replying to was about the founding principles of America and slavery.

              That’s why I’m not talking about any other country.

              I am simple debating that one point.

              What relevance does any other country have to this question?

              Two (or more) wrongs do not a right make. But as I said, the actions of any other countries are irrelevant to the question of whether the founding principles of America were anti-slavery. Which as I’ve shown, they weren’t.

              (For example, if you posted a comment criticising North Korea’s starvation of its population, why would it be relevant of me to mention the 1870s Anti-Charitable Contributions Act which made it a crime to punish with imprisonment the giving of food to the starving Bengalis due to GB belief in the free market – which caused mass starvation, 10-18m deaths, even though the Moghuls and Qing Chinese managed successful relief of their major famines?

              Does the actions of the British 100+ years ago in any way justify or mitigate the famine in North Korea? No. Would it be relevant of me to mention it if you posted that North Korea’s starvation was evil? No.

              So what relevance do other countries have to a question about the founding principles of the US and slavery? None.)

              And it is not a rant. It is simply a list of 7 or 8 points which are accepted by all historians of different nationalities and political persuasions.

              Or do you claim not to have read it because I asked you which of these points you disputed?

              Bit of a cop out. “As I can’t argue with a single point raised and have lost the argument, I will ignore my original point about slavery and founding principles and try to change the discussion to other countries.”

              • george

                I don’t see the point in having exchanges with people that only see evil in America and never see it anywhere else.

            • terence patrick hewett

              Just dismissing a rather well researched deconstruction as a “rant” does not help yr case. There are omissions in the hypothesis of Ganpati23 as in elements of its conclusion but his facts are sound. America did not leap fully formed from the womb: the American Revolution may be rather viewed in my subjective opinion as the Third English Civil War

              • george

                That’s a different subject and I never claimed that America ‘leapt forward…’, though it IS a radical experiment in self-government; to the contrary, another recent comment of mine explicitly praises Britain as the nation that ‘gave rise’ to America (mainly through the political philosophy of John Locke, but in countless other ways as well — legal, political, and cultural).

                You should be aware, regarding the commenter I replied to, that I am not interested in exchanges with people that only see evil in America and never see it anywhere else.

  • paulus

    This is a sad day, and let us mark it because this will a turning point in history. They were not asking to attack but to be given the option to respond to an absolute outrage.

    Now every dictator and despot in the world will stock up on chemical weapons and if they feel threatened they will fire them thru the doors of a captive and subject populace.

    Hang your head in shame, in shame.

    • James Strong

      On the contrary,this is a proud day.
      The House of Commons has shown that they do not want to commit British lives, assets and wealth in a war that has nothing to do with us, is no threat to us, and has participants on both sides who distrust and dislike or hate us.
      We are no weaker as a result; no dictator will think that, were he to attack the UK he would face any less devastating a response than he would have faced the day before this vote.

    • Fasdunkle

      Nobody is saying despots should be allowed to do what they like. All we are saying is it shouldn’t always be us who deals with them

    • Keith D

      No they wont.
      If,and the jury is still out,it is proven that Assad or his allies did this then the Americans will act without our help.They dont need us.
      If Cameron wanted our military to be the worlds policeman he would have been wiser in not castrating them.
      Islamic nutters will always wage sectarian war,they’re brainwashed into it from childhood.

    • Nick

      My head is held high and why should our troops risk their lives for muslims?……Why?

  • Curnonsky

    Obama will not be pleased with Dave after this fiasco.

  • YesWeCanFlyDrones

    The other day upon the stair
    I met a man named CamerBlair
    He wasn’t there again today
    I think he’s nearly yesterday.

  • dalai guevara

    This is serious.
    We have no government.

    Ever since the boundary/HoL reform debacle,
    we have had no government,
    not dealing with anything of substance domestically.

    Now, the same applies to foreign policy.
    We have no functioning government.
    They do not command the house,
    they do not command policy,
    they do not hold the power.

    This is very serious indeed.

  • Radford_NG

    This week was the 199th anniversary of British forces burning Washington DC;taking care not to damage private property.I’ve no objection to bashing Assad; but the other side are various gangs of religious psycho-cases who are even worse.I think this the main objection of the public rather then thoughts of Iraq and Blair.

  • dalai guevara

    This is serious.
    We have no government.

    Ever since the boundary/HoL reform debacle,
    we have had no government,
    not dealing with anything of substance domestically.

    Now, the same applies to foreign policy.
    We have no functioning government.
    They do not command the house,
    they do not command policy,
    they do not hold the power.

    This is very serious.

    nb. the entire Telegraph commenting system has been taken offline. A coincidence?
    nb2. apparently resolved

  • FrankS

    Party conference season looming – maybe some nights of the long knives?

    • the viceroy’s gin

      No. It’s the Cameroons were talking about here, mind.

      Night of the long cocktail sticks, maybe.

  • Collamore

    Cameron is probably HAPPY that he lost the vote.
    He’s still PM, he doesn’t have to pursue a costly and divisive foreign policy, and he can thus APPEAR tough and humanitarian about Syria without actually having to DO anything about Syria.

    • DrCoxon

      And that would be yet another miscalculation.

    • Adrian Wainer

      ” Cameron is probably HAPPY that he lost the vote.He’s still PM, he doesn’t have to pursue a costly and divisive foreign policy, and he can thus APPEAR tough and humanitarian about Syria without actually having to DO anything about Syria. “,.

      ” Cameron is probably HAPPY that he lost the vote. “,.
      I do not think so, as the Saudis have got themselves in to the unhappy situation for them of showing themselves up as attempting though Cameron to hijack the UK Military to fight as mercenaries in the Gran Jihad War against Western Civilization without the attempted hijack in this instance being successful.

  • anyfool

    Labour pandering to its new core Muslim vote, some Euro sceptics getting their revenge, Lib Dems their usual stab in the back.
    Non voted for the right reasons, the right reason should have been a straight vote about the use of chemical weapons.
    What these people will say if Assad starts to use them in a more lethal way will at best be inventive.

    • DrCoxon

      According to the latest news the Americans are not convinced that Assad is guilty.

    • DanteGabrielRossetti

      I bet the mostly Sunni Muslims in Britain would support intervention. After all, it would help AQ and Sunni Radicalism.

      • Daniel Maris

        True. Maybe he was under pressure behind the scenes from the Sunni lobby.

    • James Strong

      The more crazed muslims, those who are slaughtering Christians among their other atrocities, are the rebels.
      Intervening in a way that gives aid and succour to them is not a wise policy.

    • Adrian Wainer

      ” Labour pandering to its new core Muslim vote, some Euro sceptics getting their revenge, Lib Dems their usual stab in the back.Non voted for the right reasons, the right reason should have been a straight vote about the use of chemical weapons.
      What these people will say if Assad starts to use them in a more lethal way will at best be inventive. “,.

      Some MPs no doubt voted against the proposed military action in Syria for morally wrong reasons that does not change the issue one little bit that attacking the Syrian regime with cruise missiles was bad policy and was promoted by David Cameron because he is a Saudi gofer since such a military intervention was conflicted with both British national security interests and humanitarian interests.

      • anyfool

        If you read my posts over the last two weeks you will see I am no defender of Cameron, it is the sheer nauseating spectacle of people like Miliband and others pretending they are doing so because of any moral concern or national interest.
        That the effects of their chicanery coincides with what I myself hoped for does not make the result edifying.
        The likes of Miliband, Balls and the other destroyers of the culture of this country will never ever put the country first, there must be someone somewhere who is better than the rubbish that currently infects the political system.

        This is what I wrote 7 days ago.
        anyfool • 7 days ago

        Why would any sensible person in the world want to remove Assad, he is no danger to anyone outside of his own sty, unlike the Saudi and Qatari religious nutcases who are financing the global terrorists trying to remove him.
        They are the biggest dangers, the royal families pandering to these creatures to safeguard their thrones should be the target, hundreds of thousands have died to uphold these oil fiefdoms.

  • Daniel Maris

    Yep, he has only himself to blame. He could have proceeded very cautiously. Really it’s difficult to know what he was trying to do apart from looking leaderly and thrusting after those flabby beach photos.

  • Austin Barry

    Cameron, a shallow political spiv, but a well-educated one, should know that the one inviolable rule of high office is that hubris always leads to nemesis.

    • DrCoxon

      I am not sure that he is well educated. His knowledge of history seems limited.

      • hamurana

        I like “Shallow political spiv”. Very apt. However “public school nurtured” might be better than “well educated”.

        • Daniel Maris

          Or “injected with entitlement at an early age”.

        • Christian

          The man didn’t know what Magna Carta was so God help us if that now counts as well educated

          • Ganpati23

            And told Obama (and the world) we were the yanks junior partners in 1940.

      • YesWeCanFlyDrones

        This is a quality widely shared in parliament, which is why Britain’s military adventures abroad always end in humiliation.

      • blingmun

        Google “Cameron Magna Carta” to watch him fail David Letterman’s mock citizenship test. He may sound impressive but he is basically shallow.

      • CaptainDallas

        Educated, but not that bright.

    • george

      Yes, but nemesis might lead to catharsis which could lead to charisma. All of which can be healed with the right ointment.

  • John Clegg

    This is just the latest in a long line of inept political decisions that Cameron has made. Gay Marriage, selling off our forests, big society, hug a hoody, cycle to work with your car following.

    It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so bloody serious.

  • Sweary Expat

    I am no fan of David Cameron, but I think more highly of him after tonight. He put the question to Parliament when he didn’t have to, and accepted the result with real graciousness

    • DrCoxon

      There are plenty of Tory MPs who will privately disagree with your analysis.

      • Fergus Pickering

        That is not an analysis. It is an opinion.

  • Smithersjones2013

    Cameron was asking for that trust today, and he didn’t get it. He took a massive gamble, and suffered a massive defeat.

    Oops (but hardly surprising).

  • CraigStrachan

    “I am personally sympathetic go Cameron’s arguments about Britain’s role in the world.”

    Personally, I’d like to see Britain’s role in the world being that of a free and sovereign nation.

  • MalcolmRedfellow

    From what we hear, Sir George as Chief whip urged Cameron to have nothing to do with recall and motion. That let’s him off the hook, presumably.

    So where was the pressure coming from?

    Washington seems to have pulled back until after the Putin meeting. Hmm, probably not from there to any great degree.

    The FO? In which case, Hague has to take the rap; and arguably should be re-assigned.

    The neo-Cons? Well, Fox won’t be coming back. Gove (and his Missus) appear to be taking it hard, to the untrammelled glee of the smelly socks brigade – can’t think that performance in the Lobby will endear him much.

    Ultimately, of course, the rental price of leadership involves regular instalments of perceived shrewd judgement …

    • Not a Number

      The FCO and wider Government is deeply in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood through various front organisations and the employment of advisers of questionable background. Even the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood works for the Government.

      Why should it be surprising that the advice given and the relationships depended on are all corrupt and pro-Islamic terrorism. Even when 30 million Egyptians came out onto the streets to demand the removal of the totalitarian minded Morsi our Government was still supporting the Muslim Brotherhood as the vanguard of democracy.

  • The Red Bladder

    I feel that history will be kinder to Anthony Eden than David Cameron

    • Richard Walker

      People forget that Anthony Eden was a first class foreign secretary and a decorated war hero.

      Cameron, well …err…

    • Fergus Pickering

      But history has been very unkind indeed to Anthony Eden. The werdict has been given and he was found wanting. Do you suppose that will be revised?

      • Richard Walker


    • jatrius

      Eden was shafted by the Americans. Cameron’s injuries are entirely self-inflicted.

  • dansus

    Surely the purpose would be to disable Assad’s military assets? If theres a case to help people in need, surely the plight of the normal, everyday citizens of Syria are worthy of our help.

    Hard to know the validity of this documentary’s claims but its a shocking account none the less.

    • hamurana

      Disabling Assad’s military assets amounts to assisting those opposing him who are largely AQ. If you really want to assist AQ go ahead and destroy Assad’d assets or even Assad himself. Do not be surprised if, when the shooting starts, Assad attacks Israel which will then retaliate bringing Iran into an escalating middle east war. Iran might just clobber US bases in Saudi Arabia and lob something across the Persian Gulf at the Sunni Gulf States.

      • dansus

        That is the risk, and other risks too. But in this case, it shouldn’t be the cause of inaction. As you have pointed out, its a delicate and potentially volatile situation, so any action would have to be carefully considered and precise in its execution.

        In any case, seems as if the US will go ahead with action and we will play a role behind the scenes. So your fears may yet be realised.

  • Steven Efstathiou

    Anyone who witnessed Philip Hammond’s car-crash interview on Newsnight (he repeatedly confused Bashar Al-Assad with Saddam Hussein, evidently not realising that Bush and Blair had helped send that particular psychotic nutjob to meet his maker) will breath a sigh of relief that this incompetent will not be despatching (what’s left of) our Armed Forces into another war in the Middle East.

    • Alexandrovich

      I also learnt, from Newsnight, that maternity smocks should be reintroduced forthwith, and that mobile phones should be banned from the House of Commons.

      • Magnolia

        It was completely inappropriate to show that much leg when discussing such a serious topic on a news programme.
        I also thought the DPM’s ‘hot pink’ coloured tie was also in very poor taste for a HOP debate which involved discussing the gassing of children by chemical weapons.

        • george

          Tendentious eye-of-the-beholder stuff, there. Firstly, if he’s discussing murders, what the h ll does it matter what colour he’s wearing? He wore it because it’s in his wardrobe. Besides, pink is the colour of compassion, is it not? You’d better have a word with the breast cancer people if you know otherwise!

          • Magnolia

            I’ve nothing against pink ties.
            Mr A Neil wears a beautiful brown suit with a hot pink coloured lining which looks amazing.
            But, context is everything.
            MPs should have a sombre tie or jacket (for the women) on standby in their offices, if they’re well organised and they should think of using it.
            Pink sunsets, pink roses, pink fallen Acer leaves are for all. The colour pink should not be hijacked by crass, subliminal and overused marketing ploys, however worthy the cause, be it GP or BCC.

    • DrCoxon

      I suspect that Hammond had grave reservations about the Cameron policy and was deeply conscious of the Iraq debacle.

  • Abhay

    Smugness and incompetence.
    There is so much to do domestically and yet this PM was looking for some questionable glory in a military strike which the countrymen are opposed to.
    Has he already sacked his advisers or not?

    • James Strong

      Why should the advisers face the sack?
      Cameron and his coterie of ministers take the decisions.
      When it goes well Cameron takes the credit; when he fouls up he should carry the can.

  • Earlshill

    Cameron recover from this defeat? Let’s hope not.

    • ArchiePonsonby

      Used to be that a defeat in the Commons would mean an election. Does Cameron’s fixed term Parliament mean that this no longer applies? Let’s hope that the ghastly smug git gets a kicking!

Can't find your Web ID? Click here