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Syria defeat: what happened to the whips?

29 August 2013

There are a number of serious implications of tonight’s result. But it’s worth briefly considering the whipping operation in the hours leading up to this vote. Firstly, there was no rebel whipping operation (as in, no backbenchers leading others to revolt, totting up numbers and issuing rebuttals of government claims) as there has been on other votes such as the Lords and EU budget and referendum rebellions, which means MPs were only being pulled away from the government position by their own instincts. Or they were being left to wander away from the government position. From the conversations I’ve had with MPs, the government whipping operation continued to be pretty low-key until the middle of today, when the whips started to panic. MPs were starting to get hints that things were serious when those who were known to be seriously sceptical about intervention received calls from the whips asking them to support the government on this motion because they needed their votes. The Prime Minister then started holding meetings with would-be rebels, to try to convince them of his case. But even as the panic rose, no-one thought that there would be a defeat.

A number of rebels have remarked to me that it is strange the whips didn’t set to this earlier: they had known for a number of months that there was a list of 81 MPs who were nervous because those MPs signed Andrew Bridgen’s letter to the Prime Minister before the summer recess. But instead of working on those MPs, the whips left them alone. This result, if nothing else, puts paid to the notion that the Conservative leadership can rely on the party to be ‘self-whipping’ until the 2015 election. One MP remarked that he was surprised that more of his colleagues didn’t have such a visceral reaction to Ed Miliband’s antics that they supported the government out of sheer tribal loyalty on this vote.

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And this has taken David Cameron back to the position he was with his party before the summer, when all his love-bombing appeared to have paid off. Why did so few obey the whips’ polite requests for support? Well, there’s principle, but that could have been expressed at the second vote, if it came. One rebel says:

‘It all comes down to loyalty. Who do you want to be loyal to, your Prime Minister or your constituents? The point is that backbenchers know that Cameron doesn’t really mean it, that he wouldn’t die in a ditch for them, so why should they die in a ditch for him?’

Another MP remarks:

‘Cameron lost tonight because yet again he failed to plan and treat each policy as a campaign. No 10 never try to work out Labour and they never present politics as a choice. It means no-one ever thinks he is a conviction politician.’

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Show comments
  • starfish

    Hang on we are supposed to be a representative democracy. The public is against action, MPs reflected that. Leadership is all very well but misdirected muddled or just plain wrong leadership does not deserve to be respected.
    The public also knows that the consequences of any potential action would play out on the streets of the UK

  • James Strong

    Good morning, and what a great start to the day to see so many commenters coming here to say how pleased they are that the whips were defeated.
    Commenters have understood this quicker than the journalists; defeating the whips is very good news.

  • Austin Barry

    Now that his obsequious little pal Cameron has failed to deliver, I wonder what revenge will be exacted by the already anti-British, sociopathic, and no doubt seething Obama?

    It won’t be long in coming.

    • Noa

      Let us hope that Congress provides him with a lesson in humility similar to that received by Mr Cameron.

  • DrCoxon

    There were enough Tory MPs who felt it wrong to rain bombs on Damascus because Mr Cameron thought it highly probable that Assad is guilty. They showed old-fashioned good sense.

    • Daniel Maris

      And good old fashioned self-preservation in the face of the UKIP vote.

  • Noa

    It’s very clear that there is no love lost between Cameron and the Tory backbenchers he has treated with such disdain.
    Revenge is they say a dish best served cold. Not so, this evening it was provided after a full day of battle.

  • Jimble

    Cameron’s problem is denial – he still thinks he’s quite good at being PM.

  • FrankS

    What happened to the whips? Ignored – let’s have more of the same!

  • geedeesea

    “A BBC team inside Syria filming for Panorama has witnessed the aftermath
    of a fresh horrific incident – an incendiary bomb dropped onto a school
    playground in the north of the country – which has left scores of
    children with napalm-like burns over their bodies.”

    Link to BBC page and video

    • DanteGabrielRossetti

      Wasn´t Napalm also used by the Americans in Vietnam?

      • Daniel Maris

        ..and didn’t they also use chemical defoliants that caused nerve damage (which has allegedly been passed down the generations).

      • camjan2

        I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like


        • e2toe4

          ‘You either surf or you fight….Charlie don’t surf.’

          Although he didn’t surf Charlie did win in the end…despite the napalm, defoliants and a total tonnage of bombs dropped greater than the entire total dropped in the 2nd world war.

          I think one of the Wilson government’s achievements was not succumbing to great pressure to join in.

          ….And, despite losing it, the USA has been fighting that war ever since, in a sense, as without Vietnam you (maybe) don’t get the drug war chaos in Mexico & Latin America for the last 30 or more years that has continually threatened to spill into the USA itself.

  • Daniel Maris

    Calculation no doubt is coming into this. A lot of these Tory MPs may be thinking about what the UKIP vote might do their majorities – especially if they were seen as supporting expensive foreign adventures in support of dodgy Jihadis.

    • Alexsandr

      quite. If voting against the government could get them re-elected for another 5 years of expenses -well its a no brainer init?

  • e2toe4

    I feel to an extent Cameron is paying the price on the cheques Blair wrote over Iraq…but that last quote above may be the key one but not because of the eye-catching ‘die in the ditch’ part .

    That is significant but I feel the possibly more significant part is the bit that sets up loyalty to constituents above loyalty to prime Minister.

    I think while that can be read as saying IF the PM was believed to be ready to ‘die in the ditch’ the decision could be different, beneath that is the question of loyalty to constituents and the role social media now plays in making clear to politicians what their constituents are thinking.

    This new element also gives those constituents methods that simply didn’t previously exist ( even at the time of Iraq, for example) to not merely express discontent and lash out, although it does do this, but to also co-ordinate and organise strong opposition to politicians.

    Power is flowing down the political structure…social media is a new version of the power of the mob…. with all the dangers that may have, but also all the powerful inducements it creates for politicians to really think about where their interests lie.

    The single point of failure at the heart of the banking crisis (useful these days as the example of greatest clarity in a large number of related failures that end up as breaches of trust founded on inertia and complacency), was the abject failure of non executives to restrain the executives. The back bench MPs are the non execs of Parliament and it perhaps isn’t surprising they have started listening to the shareholders.

    Social media leaves them unable to ignore either the message or the warning of the consequences of ignoring it.

    (I am not saying the arrival of social media is the whole and entire story…the old reason of not being able to fool all of the people all of the time has a big hand in tonight’s events… however I do feel trying to ignore it is the political equivalent these days of building the Maginot Line to combat a Panzer army.

    • Dougie

      Interesting thoughts about social media. But one Tory MP I heard interviewed said he had received precisely six messages from constituents about Syria and far more about badgers.

      • e2toe4

        I take that point…some of them are wired and some are so far behind the curve they think there’s a permanent eclipse going on. But even the ones that don’t get it, ‘sort of get’ that it (this social media thing) matters ‘somehow’….. and the social space is almost (perhaps) more significant when people are NOT sending messages directly to the politician.

        As many now suspect, a great number of politicians are least interested in those who actually do address them directly–they often appear to always assume either they are hearing from hardcore supporters, or hardcore opponents, and treat both the same way.

        The significance of the social media space…newspaper/mag articles (and then the comments they attract) is that they supply politicians with a kind of secret window into ‘what people are thinking’.

        (It may be that the aggregation of views isn’t exactly ‘what most people are thinking’—that’s an ‘argument’ —- but I think politicians believe it)

        In a way it’s a kind of feedback loop that I do honestly think did play a part in this one, as it sparked away between ‘Iraq-lies-Blair’….

        and ….

        ‘ no clear aim….what good can we achieve?… mission creeping into a morass’


        ‘war weariness…. who cares…. another Afghanistan’

        These lines just seemed to coalesce and I do think that helped make the old school type calculations by Cameron and his advisors just too complex to compute accurately.

  • Johnson

    What a strange choice of metaphor. It’s the people who live in Syria who avoided dying in a ditch this evening.

  • Abhay

    So all the whipping failed to get the motion through.
    Good stuff.

  • Earlshill

    At long last, the Tory backbenches have found their collective backbone. Now all they need to do is keep those letters to the 22 chairman coming…….

  • roger

    As the whips are the pondlife that has soured British parliament for generations I am glad to see their tactics defeated. Treating our representatives as a pack of foxhounds has always been wrong. I remember one bloated Labour Chief Whip who assaulted a member and the master at arms just shrugged, ‘business as usual’.

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