Comment: Miliband’s canny political attack provided a moral victory on Syrian refugees

Amid the usual tedium and noise of PMQs, Ed Miliband scored a significant moral and strategic victory.

The Labour leader used three questions on Syrian refugees and three on unemployment and wages. The latter three were standard meat-and-potatoes PMQs, filled with phrases we get every week, but they commanded the attention of most commentators because they were confrontational.

The former three led to Cameron relenting on one of the most important issues facing Great Britain, but because they were discussed in a consensual manner they were largely ignored. But make no mistake: this was a remarkable achievement and an important step towards ending a shameful and short-sighted foreign policy mistake.

Miliband asked Cameron why he wouldn't take part in a UN refugee programme for Syria.

Up until now the UK response has been two-fold: we pump aid into the neighbouring countries taking the lion's share of refugees and we accept most of the Syrian asylum seekers who somehow manage to make it to the UK. That is commendable, but it is not enough.

The real reason Cameron doesn't want to take part in a refugee programme is because it risks raising the anger of the right-wing tabloid press. It says something about a country when its leader feels more confident pushing for war in a volatile and murky regional conflict than he does taking a few hundred refugees, but that is another matter.

The prime minister's answers to Miliband's questions saw him flail about desperately, searching for any reason not to participate.

This was his first argument:

"Let's not pretend a small quota system can solve the problem of Syrian refugees."

Logically speaking, it is barely worthy of note, except to observe that someone at the level of prime minister has deployed it. Simply because something does not solve a problem altogether does not mean it will not help at all.

We must be grateful that Cameron does not use the same logic when dressing, or we may one day come across him wearing only his socks.

No one could possible utter this argument without knowing how inane it was. It was telling that Cameron had to reach for it.

Next, he changed tack and tried a new argument:

"Some countries are using this quota system as a way of saying 'therefore I've fulfilled my obligations'."

This was as weak as his first argument but had the added quality of cynicism, for to use the cynicism of others to mask one's own merely multiplies the original offence.

The fact others are using the system for the own reasons is not our concern. We are concerned only with whether we are doing enough in the face of emergency.

Finally, Cameron seemed to relent and promised to look at the issue.

"We are prepared to listen to the arguments about how we can help the most vulnerable people in those refugee camps."

He's obviously not going to use the pre-existing UN quota system, presumably for reasons of not wanting to look as if he's making a U-turn. It doesn't really matter which system he uses, although, as I've written before, the Gateway Protection Programme, managed in a partnership between the UNHCR and the Home Office, is a pre-existing mechanism which could easily be swung into action.

What matters is that we do something. We are witnessing an unprecedented movement of peoples in the Middle East, against a backdrop of religious, tribal and political civil war.

This raises humanitarian concerns but not just that: they are moving into countries which have their own fractured, volatile political climates, countries like Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon. The longer we allow them to bear a disproportionate burden, the greater the chances of them slipping into the Syria quagmire. And that is a very disturbing prospect indeed.

Any sensible assessment of British national interest would do whatever was possible to prevent that from happening. Aid is not enough. Asylum is not enough. We have to take an active part in a coordinated international refugee programme.

Miliband got Cameron into a position where he gave way, to a limited and unspecified extent. Then he tabled a Commons vote on the issue for next week, pushing him further towards doing the right thing. It was a strategic and ethical victory for the Labour leader for which he deserves considerable credit.

It is a shame we have a prime minister who needs pushing.

Ian Dunt is editor of

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