U.K.’s Syria Vote Could Lead to Different Kind of Regime Change

While trying to help stall Bashar Assad, it's David Cameron who stands to lose power

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Anti-war protesters gather on College Green outside the Houses of Parliament on Aug. 29, 2013 in London.

As the U.S. administration rushes to assess the damage and disruption caused by Britain’s unexpected punitive strike on its plans for Syria, officials might consider the fate of the man who yesterday failed to deliver parliamentary backing for U.K. involvement in a U.S. military intervention. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron had been careful ahead of last night’s House of Commons vote to make clear that the ambitions of any such intervention would be limited. Neither Britain nor the U.S. sought regime change. Regime change may yet result from his botched maneuver, however, as Britons question his leadership.

In the hours since Cameron’s 285-272 defeat on a motion calling for “a strong humanitarian response … [that] may, if necessary, require military action,” his critics have queued up to excoriate his lax party and coalition management (39 of his Conservative colleagues and Liberal Democrat partners voted against the motion). There are no modern precedents for a British premier ceding control of foreign and military policy to the opposition, and only one war in the lifetime of most MPs — Vietnam — saw the U.S. acting without British support. In 2010, ahead of his first official trip to Washington as U.K. leader, Cameron told TIME that the Anglo-American bond wasn’t just “special.” It was, he said, “an essential relationship.”

That relationship has traveled a bumpy road in a recalibrated world in which neither the U.S. nor the U.K. are quite as important as once they were, to each other or in general. Still, nothing has shaken the alliance with quite such elementary force as the events of the past 24 hours. U.S. plans had been formulated in the confident expectation that Cameron could deliver what he promised — not just military assistance but, more importantly, political cover for an air strike. “In contact between the White House and Downing Street overnight there’s been a lot of understanding,” U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told the BBC’s Today Programme, and that’s likely true. The Obama administration knows what it is to be thwarted by a legislative body and will treat any future promises from Cameron with caution. Meanwhile French President François Hollande is staking his claim to being America’s special friend in Europe. In an interview this morning with Le Monde, Hollande said the British no-vote would not change the French position and indicated that he would be discussing the exact details of that position in a call with President Obama later today.

Also speaking on the Today Programme, Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader who also served as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, expressed shame at Britain’s volte face. “MPs were cheering last night,” he said. “Let’s recognise who will be cheering this morning.” His list included Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose support for Bashar Assad has undermined diplomatic efforts towards a Syrian solution. Top of Ashdown’s list is Assad himself.

That view was given a sectarian slant by senior government figures in a flurry of verbal attacks on Labour leader Ed Miliband. His decision to martial Labour against the government’s Syria policy first forced Cameron to retreat from the government’s original plan to ask the House of Commons for immediate backing for a military intervention, and then imposed defeat on Cameron’s watered down motion requesting such backing only “in principle.” Downing Street Communications Director Craig Oliver and Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond accused Miliband of giving “succor” to Assad. Labour has demanded an apology.

The Westminster consensus is that Miliband has emerged from the rubble a winner. His cautious position, rejecting immediate intervention in favor of renewed diplomatic efforts, appears to enjoy the support of a majority of Britons. He has shown himself to be no Tony Blair. Memories of Britain’s role in Iraq still distorts the political discourse in the U.K. and especially in Labour ranks.

Insider accounts of Miliband’s decision-making process suggest he stumbled into his final stance. He is no Tony Blair — and that may come back to haunt him. So too might his apparent willingness to sacrifice relations with Washington for political advantage back home.

The real truth is that there are no winners in this messy, tragic situation, only degrees of loss.