Government defeats in House of Commons vote are usually a blow to the sitting Prime Minister, leaving a scar of weakness, and requiring a scramble to reformulate policy to account for the set-back and fill the gap left by the defeated motion. A coalition government adds another level of questions about what this means in terms of unity.
In this case however, I wonder if David Cameron will benefit from losing this vote far more than if he’d managed to push it through. For a start military involvement is currently unpopular, really unpopular,the shadow of Afghanistan and Iraq (whether justified comparisons or not) hang heavily over them in the public consciousness.
So Cameron has been dragged out of what is currently an unpopular move, but is also immune to criticism from those supporting military intervention. Of course he is still open to criticism from those opposing military intervention, but I’d suggest that criticism for wanting to do something but not actually doing it is the form of criticism that sticks the least. People always focus more on what was done than what was talked about but never happened.
He still controls the timetable on the issue; the government’s defeat puts the issue into a siding for the time being with their being no impetus for Cameron to make a move other than declare that he has to respect the will of the house. But at the same time he is always able to put another vote before the house and seek a second vote if he thinks things have shifted to allow him to win it.
Had he won the vote, or even if he’d gained near unanimous support in Parliament then the resulting action would still have been owned by Cameron (and to an extent Clegg) much more than Miliband and Labour however much in agreement they were. Owning such an unpopular policy is a case of major political bravery (with the dual implications that term brings).
If public opinion (and a majority of MPs) continues to oppose military intervention then Cameron can continue to respect the will of the house and limit the damage he faces from the interventionist stance. If these shift in response to UN reports, news media pictures, or any other factors then he has the ability to go back for a second vote while pointing out it was his position all along.
Defeat has forced David Cameron into limbo on Syria, but the flexibility that brings with it means it’s not a bad political position for him to be in.
(N.B. This is all obviously a separate calculation to what is best for the Syrian situation and the Syrian people).