David Cameron will probably survive a parliamentary defeat over military action in Syria, as a burgeoning economic recovery helps his Conservative Party’s poll standings in the runup to the 2015 election.
Thirty Tory rebels joined the Labour opposition to reject his request to authorize strikes in response to the use of chemical weapons. While the announcement of the result in the House of Commons late on Aug. 29 drew shouts of “resign” from the Labour benches, even those Conservatives who voted against the prime minister were keen to support him yesterday.
“We should pay proper credit to the prime minister; he’s taken Parliament seriously and he’s enabled it to be taken seriously and that is to his eternal credit,” Crispin Blunt, a former Tory minister who voted against the Syria proposal, told the BBC. Any damage to Cameron’s authority “is a temporary blip,” Blunt said.
Cameron, who’s worked to persuade other world leaders to take action over Syria and will now travel to next week’s Group of 20 summit in Russia unable to offer U.K. support for strikes, faced morning newspaper headlines saying he’d been “humbled” and “humiliated.” Even so, with the U.K. economy returning to growth, it may not affect his standing with voters in comparison with Labour leader Ed Miliband.
“People will notice Syria, but it doesn’t affect their lives,” YouGov Plc polling analyst Anthony Wells said in an interview. “I’d be surprised if this didn’t have a negative effect on Cameron, at least in the short term, but the question is how it affects long-term perceptions of the party leaders. Does it make Ed Miliband look strong and Cameron look weak? Up to now, the polls have been going the Conservative way. People think the economy has turned around.”
Cameron has been closing the gap between his party and Labour in recent weeks, with a YouGov poll carried out Aug. 27-28 showing Labour’s lead at three percentage points, the narrowest in the series this year.
U.K. economic growth accelerated to 0.7 percent in the second quarter and there are signs that momentum has been maintained with indexes of services, manufacturing and construction rising last month. House prices are also increasing.
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said this week that the recovery is showing signs of being “broad-based and set to continue” even if growth prospects “are solid, not stellar.”
That helps to explain why there’s no danger of Cameron having to follow the example of Lord North, who quit as premier in 1782 after a comparable vote on the American War of Independence, or of Neville Chamberlain, who resigned in 1940, after more than 30 of his Tory lawmakers opposed his government’s conduct of a campaign to recapture Norway during World War II.
Even so, the Commons defeat by 282 votes to 275 is a further public demonstration of Cameron’s weak control over his party, and he’s been reminded again that he can only pass measures he can persuade them to support.
Tories have rebelled against Cameron repeatedly since he took office in 2010, forcing him to change position on the European Union budget and then to promise a referendum on leaving the bloc.
Last year, rebels refused to back the introduction of elections to the upper House of Lords. Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners retaliated by blocking a redrawing of Commons electoral boundaries that would have removed an inbuilt bias in favor of the Labour Party.
Tory lawmaker Steve Baker, a former Royal Air Force officer and supporter of the U.S. Tea Party movement, described the case for “humanitarian intervention,” which was the basis for the government’s motion on Syria, as “infantile” in a post on his website.
In a sign of the pride among rank-and-file lawmakers that they had blocked Cameron’s plans, Baker also boasted that the watering-down of the government’s original motion, which would have sought approval for immediate strikes, was the result of action by Tory rebels, not the Labour Party.
Even so, the renewed rebelliousness poses no direct threat to Cameron’s position, said Phil Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University and author of a book on parliamentary revolts.
“Any talk of votes of confidence or resignation is nonsense,” Cowley said in a telephone interview. “The government will carry on, just a bit more battered and bruised. The big effect will be on Parliament. They’ve learned they can say no.”