The vote against the military strike by 285 votes to 272 is the most momentous Commons vote of at least the last 40 years. It upended a Prime Minister who only recalled Parliament 4 days before Parliament was due anyway to reconvene because he was sure the House could be persuaded to support a motion which, reading the small print very carefully, could be construed as giving the green light to an early attack. Within 3 days he got it wrong on every count. He thought he had the Labour Party in the bag (a reckless presumption), he under-estimated the unrest and sheer bloody-mindedness of the Tory Right (a surprising complacency considering their record of overturning him), and he failed to reckon with public opinion and the caution of the military top brass (his arrogant self-confidence in his right to rule blinding his judgement of the obstacles). Yesterday was undoubtedly a spectacular triumph for parliamentary accountability – holding the Executive to account on the greatest issue of all, war and peace – but above all for Ed Miliband who played his parliamentary hand with exquisite skill. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge the baneful influence from beyond the (political) grave of Tony Blair. The memory of the tissue of lies and deceptions by which he tricked a hesitant Commons into backing the Iraq war undoubtedly substantially increased the Tory naysayers. So thank you, Tony.
But the primary force that won the day was unquestionably the leadership of Miliband. Faced with a divided shadow cabinet and PLP, with powerful voices calling for a retaliatory strike, together with the weighty burden of presumption that an Opposition in an immediate pre-war situation would support HMG in the wake of the US lead, he hesitated. His initial message was that Labour would support the case for a strike depending on the evidence from the UN inspectors, but reluctantly. But further reflection – the same reflection that caused him to take on Murdoch over BSkyB and the press over Leveson – transformed Labour’s stance, less than 24 hours before the debate, to outright rejection of the Government’s motion. If he had not insisted on that, Cameron would have won a vote by a comfortable margin authorising British participation in a strike.
It is without parallel in modern times for the Leader of the Opposition to block the all-but-settled decision of the hugely powerful combined US-UK establishments to go to war. Whereas Cameron repeatedly flip-flops according to where the wind is coming from, Miliband has a steely inner core. He now on the crest of a wave and he should use it to become fully his own man, easing out those who stand in his way and pushing ahead forcibly for the transformation of Britain he deeply believes in.