How Britain joined the war in Iraq

How the mother parliament settled on an Iraq resolution

(Leon Neal, Pool, AP Photo)

(Leon Neal, Pool, AP Photo)

Ahead of today’s Iraq debate in the House of Commons—scheduled to start at noon and run until 6:30, with a break for question period—it might be worth reviewing how British MPs debated the matter in the mother parliament two weeks ago. (Prime Minister David Cameron led the debate and took 24 questions—the Brits have this lovely little thing where the person speaking can give way in the middle of his or her speech to another MP who wishes to ask that person a question.)

The end result was a 523-42 vote in favour of a resolution to launch airstrikes on targets in Iraq. (Those 42 nays included 23 Labour MPs, one Liberal-Democrat and six Conservatives who broke with their party lines. In our case, I think I’d fall over if even one MP broke with the party line.) Thirteen months after the British government lost a vote on bombing Syria due, in part, to the official opposition’s objections, it won with the backing of the official opposition.

Nothing like that seems likely to occur here.

The vote in Westminster was preceded by a phone call between Prime Minister Cameron and Labour Leader Ed Miliband.

“We had a good conversation and my office has been in touch with him,” Mr. Cameron said. “He has had a number of briefings from the team at the National Security Secretariat. I’m confident that we are proceeding with this on an all-party basis — well, a three major party basis.”

And there is some suggestion that Miliband’s views prevented the government from including Syria in its motion.

Nothing like that seems to have occurred here.

Now, it’s too much to suggest that consultation necessarily results in bipartisan support. Cameron and Miliband spoke before last year’s vote on Syria and it went less well (warning: some thoroughly British adult language contained therein). And, of course, it very much matters if Labour’s support was seen as necessary to getting something through the House—a situation akin to the discussions that have occurred here when the Conservatives had a minority government.

But in assessing the circumstances of our Parliament’s vote, there is an interesting counter-factual to play with: is it possible that either of the Liberals or New Democrats could have been convinced to support the government if they’d been brought into discussions with the government before last Friday? I played around with this idea on Friday and Liberal insiders pinned some part of their party’s decision on a certain lack of communication.

Having backed the non-combat role, insiders say Liberals were surprised that Harper made no effort to brief them on the U.S. request or to make the case for joining other nations in conducting airstrikes. The secrecy left Liberals distrustful of Harper’s motives and fearful that there really was no coherent plan to eradicate ISIL, other than to be seen to be doing something.

As I wrote on Friday, for this to be crucial, you have to imagine that the New Democrats and Liberals were not necessarily destined to end up opposing this mission—that, with some level of outreach, one or both of the parties could be made to feel that they had some reason to support the government’s proposal. What if, for instance, the Liberals had been able to convince the government to rewrite the motion to include some wording about improving Iraqi governance based on Trudeau’s speech last week to the Canada 2020 conference?

Of course, it’s not necessarily a problem that, barring some late movement, Canada will commit to airstrikes with the government in favour and the opposition opposed. But if you wanted to make that goal, you might at least think about how that might’ve happened.