Ed Miliband: Riding high, but he lost as well

Miliband defeated his own principles last night

Miliband defeated his own principles last night

With the prime minister's authority so severely damaged, it's tempting to hand Ed Miliband his most significant victory to date. He has now taken on Rupert Murdoch, Washington and his elder brother and won.

He broke the consensus which usually exists on military intervention, he insisted on a UN route, on extra safeguards and he robbed Cameron of his majority in the Common, inflicting the first foreign policy defeat for a sitting prime minister in centuries. Not bad for a day's work.

But let's get one thing clear about what Miliband did: He defeated his own principles.

The Labour amendment and government motion were almost completely identical. Miliband could not define what the difference was. His best effort – that it was a "roadmap" not a statement of "principle" – was so murky you wouldn't want to touch it with your hands.

The point of yesterday's debate, once Cameron had watered down the motion by pledging a further vote before military action, was to condemn the chemical attacks in Syria. Both motions supported that, but by splitting the vote along party lines neither succeeded.

Miliband was careful not to rule out intervention. He still in principle – when that word was not loaded by the government motion – accepted that Assad probably launched those weapons and that the use of chemical weapons should be punished.

Miliband's amendment was about how the government got from point A to point B. It really came down to an unspecified standard of "compelling" evidence and that the weapon inspectors' report was shown in full to the security council, rather than pre-briefed, before being voted on.

For these infinitesimal reasons, Miliband split the Commons. He split the Commons over the difference between a report and an executive summary.

He lost. His amendment was roundly defeated. And the government lost. Britain will not condemn the use of chemical weapons against some of the most vulnerable people on earth, nor will it act to discourage their future use.

Miliband was pushed from every direction – by the memory of Blair, by his nervy backbenchers, by a desire to get one over on Cameron and Osborne, and by his influential shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander. And the little bit of ground he found himself standing on happened to be the only bit not to collapse.

But he did not discover it. He stumbled backwards onto it. He got really, really lucky. He found himself opposite a prime minister who enjoys precious little capital with his party. He is in opposition during a particularly febrile time for the country and parliament, as grinding austerity and perpetual war in the Middle East take their toll.

The press understands grand events through the prism of winners and losers and Cameron is undoubtedly the loser this morning. But that doesn't make Miliband a winner. He defeated his own principles. His actions worked to counteract his stated goals.

Cameron is weakened, but at least he still has his integrity. He promised in opposition to consult parliament before war and he was as good as his word. He believed in humanitarian intervention to discourage the use of chemical weapons and he was as good as his word. He followed through on his beliefs, despite the lack of political benefits. It's hard to say the same of the Labour leader.