Did Cameron bypass the Whitehall policy-making process?


Musings over Cameron’s Parliamentary defeat – with a look at the traditional model for providing advice to ministers.

Lots has been written about what the ramifications of Cameron’s Parliamentary defeat over Syria action will mean. All three party leaders face interesting party conferences in the coming couple of months. It’s at times like this that following a range of political views comes into its own, getting a feel for how the grassroots of each party has reacted. But it’s not this I’m going to look at. I’m interested in the process of how Cameron got into the quagmire he now finds himself in.

“Outrage is not a strategy”

…So said Tory rebel MP Adam Holloway on telly last night. He’s right. What MPs wanted from Cameron (as was clear from the debate) was a strategy that dealt with all of the unanswered questions MPs still have, and demonstrated clear learning from Iraq. That was a lesson the Labour leadership to its credit understood: Due process matters.

What were the options?

One of the things that sort-of surprised me with the recall of Parliament was the lack of what I call ‘open forum listening time’. This is basically where you sit back, listen to the debate, take the temperature and feed it into the policy-making process. However, such was the aggressiveness of the rhetoric from both Hague and Cameron on their chosen policy option – ie military action, that they left themselves no flexibility later on down the line. With the two rejected motions sitting shredded on the floor of the House of Commons, they have even less flexibility now – unless ministers can come back to the Commons with a significantly improved strategy. Or a strategy in the first place.

One of the problems caused by the lack of an open forum debate – caused in part by Parliament being on recess is that there were only three very clear but very extreme policy options. These were:

  1. A repeat of Iraq: send in ground troops to take out the Syrian regime, apprehend those accused of war crimes;
  2. Limited missile strikes as a punitive ‘punishment’ act for crossing what President Obama called the ‘red line’ of using chemical weapons on civilians;
  3. Do nothing – leave it for someone else to sort out.

On the first option, the legacy of the Iraq war ruled that one out – not just for the UK but for the rest of the world. No one has the appetite to send in ground troops to intervene on what is actually a far more complex situation than perhaps the media is presenting. It’s not simply a case of the regime vs the rebels.

The third option was interesting in that a number of Conservative MPs and activists asked the question: “Why us? Why not someone else intervene?” A number of MPs and their supporters pointed out that given the level of arms sales to the Middle East in decades gone by, don’t those countries now have the capacity to intervene in such situations? Why does it have to be The West intervening all the time? Ministers and their supporters responded with Obama’s ‘red line’ argument, but this was subsequently taken apart by the likes of Dr Sarah Wollaston and friends, who cited past use of chemical weapons where the world stood silent. This left a core group of MPs unconvinced by the chemical weapons reasoning – powerful and horrific though the images are coming out of Syria.

This then left the second option of what we presume would have been limited missile, drone and air strikes. But again, MPs were asking what objectives such air strikes would achieve.

The policy-making model

Whenever putting advice to ministers, the two questions ministers automatically ask (generally) are:

  1. What am I being asked to do?
  2. What problem will my actions help solve?

The problem in the minds of everyone following the debate was on point number 2. Despite the pleading of both Cameron and Clegg, neither of them made the case that the authorisation they were seeking from Parliament would lead to the problem being resolved.

When looking at each of the policy options (the trio mentioned in the first set of bullet-points), civil servants have to agree criteria with ministers in the case of more major policy options, before examining the policy options through the agreed criteria. To simplify what these might have been, such criteria might have included things such as:

  • The likelihood that the policy option will solve the problem
  • The likelihood that the policy option won’t run into problems at the UN
  • The likelihood that the policy option will be legal
  • The likelihood that the policy option will carry the support of Parliament and the public
  • Costs/resources required vs available resources
  • Risk of ‘mission creep’.

You then analyse each policy option through those criteria using the evidence available, before coming to a recommendation to put to ministers – who then have to make the judgement call on whether to agree with your advice to go with, or go against it. (Or perhaps ask probing questions on your thinking with a request for further advice).

Had Cameron already decided on the course of action/policy before going through this process?

Unlikely, but what is clear is that ministers did not go into nearly enough detail to reassure MPs. In fact, the MPs as a scrutinising executive did their job. They looked at a major policy put to them by the Prime Minister, scrutinised it, found it wanting and rejected it. This is what Parliaments are supposed to do.

One of the many errors Cameron made was that in his speech, he did not pre-empt many of the questions that were likely to come from backbench MPs. This left Clegg fighting a desperate rearguard action where more than a couple of MPs – Cheryl Gillian the former Welsh Secretary in particular – were pleading for some reassurance about what the Government’s motion did or did not entail. (Particularly with the possible use of military bases). That Clegg was unable to give that reassurance was probably the moment Cameron lost the vote.

So…now what?

For a start, Cameron and Miliband perhaps unwittingly set a new Parliamentary convention in the latter’s point of order following the second vote. Miliband asked Cameron to confirm he would not use the royal prerogative (a convention that says only the monarch can send the country to war) to authorise military action, and that any military action would require another vote in the House of Commons. Cameron agreed.

In terms of what the Government does now, it’s in this strange position of continuing to advocate military action by someone else while having been castrated by Parliament. How long will ministers be able to maintain that state of affairs? Will they be compelled to come up with a more sound and acceptable policy?

A seismic shift in UK foreign policy?

That’s what a number of people from across the political spectrum have been saying. Is this the moment where the UK is no longer the ‘dependable ally’ for the USA, where the UK’s foreign policy is a function of the latter’s? Does it also indicate a shift where the bar for UK intervention in far-off conflicts is now much higher? Is this the point where the UK says it can no longer pretend to have a global policing role? (Even though in the grander scheme of things, as a percentage of total forces committed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the UK was the junior partner militarily, with the greater importance being on participation politically rather than in weight of resources contributed).

It’s worth remembering that at some stage in the future, we’ve got a very expensive aircraft carrier plus aircraft that are due to come into commission over the next decade or so. As a future tool of foreign policy, what will the role of this new carrier strike force be – other than a deterrent?

What fruitful policy option is worth exploring in the context of the current conflict in Syria?

For me, it’s the logistics and humanitarian support. This, however requires resolving the question of ‘why us?’ doing the intervening. It may be the case that the UK moves towards a more Scandinavian-style of support rather than the historical boots-and-bombs of yesteryear. At a diplomatic level, there may also be some scope in appealing to other countries – in particular beyond the EU, to take a more high profile role in resolving global conflicts. What that role entails (and it’s not without risks), remains to be seen.





2 thoughts on “Did Cameron bypass the Whitehall policy-making process?

  1. Excellent piece Puffles, however I think there is a 4th option which is to make a proactive attempt to focus resources both in support for the 1000’s displaced whilst at the same time applying concerted effort to reform the processes in the UN

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