Parliament debated a government motion yesterday on the principle of taking military action in response to the suspected use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
Following a concession to the opposition, the motion said that a second vote would take place following the UN’s investigation into whether the weapons were used and before any direct British involvement. However, the Government was defeated by 285 votes to 272 votes.
The fact that Cameron had already made concessions made the defeat a surprise, according to Simon Haselock, chief operating officer of Albany Associates. The firm specialises in handling comms in difficult and dangerous places such as Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan on behalf of clients including the United Nations, the US Department of Defense and the UK's Department for International Development.
‘Cameron has miscalculated and this has done him quite a lot of harm,’ he said, adding that he was suffering from the mistakes of previous governments. ‘Creating the perception of rush has been a mistake and it will take time for him to recover.’
Haselock added that the result highlighted the notion of the ‘strategic deficit’. ‘The UK may have aspirations to maintain our position and the Government can talk up its capabilities, but the financial situation has removed the ability to back up that sort of rhetoric. People will be asking the question if we should have UN Security Council power.
'It will be interesting to see the American reaction. They have taken us as a natural ally and that alliance has backed up our position in the world. Perception and reality are different things. The reality is that the US will always look for allies and this won’t have any actual effect, but in terms of perception it might have quite a lot of impact.’
The vote also foreshadows domestic troubles for Cameron, according to public affairs specialist and Westminster Advisers managing director Dominic Church, who agreed the Prime Minister had miscalculated.
‘From the way Cameron has been leading the news agenda over summer, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was in charge of a majority. But he’s recalled Parliament early and this has made him look weak. The tables have turned back in Miliband’s favour.
'We saw Cameron exposed and red-faced on a beach in Cornwall last week and now we’ve seen him exposed and red-faced in a different way in Parliament. This is the first major issue prior to the party conferences and it will set the agenda. It could overshadow any positive announcements.’
He added that Miliband could be seen as weak because he prevaricated on his position on Syria, saying that this is part of a longer-term trend of neither major party having a commanding position.