The last week has certainly been a milestone in British politics for a number of reasons. They include the redefined nature of the United Kingdom's relationship with the United States; the re-emergence of Ed Miliband in dramatic form; the shattering of David Cameron's political reputation for authority which he enjoyed building over summer; and of course the game changing vote in the Commons. When taken together the set the scene for an unexpectedly new chapter in the life of this Parliament.
The first issue revolves around the recall of Parliament. Cameron and Hague had begun the week setting the scene to follow the United States into strategic strikes against Syria. With the support of Miliband, it at first seemed like a done deal. But a change of mood at the Labour top table put a spanner in the works by way of an amendment, which by itself would likely not hamper Cameron's motion for action, however it was something of an irritant for Cameron and Hague. But what it did do was provide an opportunity for MPs to object to the narrative of action going unchallenged. Up until the Labour amendment, the Commons was expected to speak with a single unifying voice with only mavericks such as George Galloway contesting the march to 'war'.
Sitting through the debate it became clearer that it was used more as an attempt to finally put Iraq the bed. All the things MPs wish they had said - and wish they could still say - to Blair and Campbell began to flow. It was a sight to behold with Labour calling for a steady, calm march to action which would wait for the UN and for evidence. It was clear they wished they'd said that in 2003. Some Tory opponents came behind this position, which shattered the division across party lines. Now it was Labour and Tory advocates verses Labour and Tory opponents, with the Liberal Democrats providing the occasional contribution. It would, therefore be facile to suggest that Tories supported whilst Labour opposed, but broadly speaking those lines blurred throughout the debate.
Clegg's closing statement also misjudged the mood of the Commons. The closing remarks were supposed to address the concerns raised by MPs, but instead Clegg chose to attack those opposing the motion across the Chamber, causing alienation. It was somewhat surreal watching Clegg argue action could be taken before the UN completed their task, but regardless he was acting as Deputy Prime Minister of a neoliberal government rather than the leader of a Liberal/Social Democratic party. And then the votes came. Labour's motion was predictably lost, but the feeling was the government would carry the day because on issues relating to military action the country always unites at the end. After all, who would want to annoy Obama, especially after Cameron's role in pushing the US for action on Syria. However, for a variety of reasons the vote was lost. Those reasons include the unconvincing nature of the evidence, the redemption for not calling for more evidence from Iraq, and war weariness. But the loss came with Miliband twisting the knife by asking Cameron to rule out use of the Royal Prerogative, which was duly obliged.
The consequences go well beyond the coming weeks and months. For example Cameron and Clegg's authority is seriously dented. It is dented within their respective party, the Commons more broadly, on the world stage, and in the country. The damage done has little historical equivalence, with the fall out from the Norway Debate in 1940 and Anthony Eden's Suez adventure providing only the very loosest comparison. Even these, though are so different in circumstances that to compare would be to stretch it too far, but their value comes in how the Prime Minister resigned afterwards such monumental foreign policy blunders. At the moment few are calling for that, but those calls may come if the military action proves successful with France taking the credit.
So, what went wrong? Why has Britain turned away from the US, shattered 'the special relationship', and caused uncertainty about Cameron? Put simply it was a massive error of judgement on Cameron's part. Had he not recalled Parliament as part of a rush to action then the US will have released its evidence (as it did 24 hours later) and the UN process would have been seen to be undertaken. Some commentators have suggested, under those circumstances, Cameron would most likely have won the vote. As it is, Cameron's decision to recall Parliament was the fatal flaw of strategy, which gave MPs the chance to vote down action based on what was known at the time. Which wasn't much. This calls into question the Prime Minister's strategy and seeming attempt to 'play Blair'. That decision will haunt Cameron for it was that move which has pushed Britain even further back onto the sidelines.