Syria crisis: Downing Street fury over Labour stance

MPs in the Commons

A row has erupted over No 10's claim Labour is giving "succour" to Syria's regime by not backing the prime minister over military action there.

Labour is demanding an apology for what it describes as "infantile" comments.

Downing Street is reported to be furious that Labour leader Ed Miliband has not backed David Cameron's motion paving the way for military strikes.

The row erupted as the Commons vote rejecting the government's motion on intervention in Syria approached.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg distanced himself from Downing Street's claims about Mr Miliband - and said the prime minister "agreed with me".

But Mr Clegg told MPs the government's motion was "very tightly defined" and the intention was not to "topple a dictator" .

"The sole aim is the relief of humanitarian suffering by targeting and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons," he told MPs.

He urged MPs not to let their scepticism about attacks, in the wake of the Iraq war, get in the way of doing the right thing and he assured them that there would be separate debate and vote before any military action is launched.

Mr Clegg's refusal to criticise Mr Miliband appeared to put him at odds with Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, who earlier stood by claims the Labour leader was giving "succour" to Assad.

"Anything that stops us from giving a clear united view of the British Parliament tonight will give some succour to the regime," he told Channel 4 News.

"We deliberately structured our motion to take account of the concerns the Leader of the Opposition had expressed directly to us.

"But he has still chosen to table an amendment and ensure that we don't have a clear, united and unified opinion from the British Parliament."

MPs had been recalled from their summer break early to vote on whether the UK should join in US-led strikes on Syria, if they go ahead.

Hundreds are reported to have died in the attack near Damascus on 21 August. The Syrian regime denies any involvement, blaming opposition forces.


But the prime minister was forced to water down the government's motion after Labour refused to back it and a second vote will now be needed to authorise military strikes.

Mr Miliband will still order his MPs to vote against the government, saying he needs to see more evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was behind the attack.


Parliament has been recalled but, tonight, no-one is entirely sure why.

The PM's aides say the debate is to give MPs an opportunity to condemn the chemical attack in Damascus.

But behind the scenes a war of words is raging.

Downing Street is accusing Ed Miliband of "playing politics" and giving succour to the Assad regime.

No 10 had thought a second vote on military action had won Labour's leader over, but he will oppose the government tonight.

Labour wants to see more compelling evidence of culpability and - while not ruling out support in future for a military strike - doesn't want to "rush to war".

Ed Miliband's advisers say he never signalled support for David Cameron at any stage.

But given his two predecessors' support for the Iraq invasion it is possible he could only retain party unity by distancing himself from the government. A survey of Labour activists suggested widespread scepticism for military action.

So the scars of the Iraq war are still paining the British body politic.

We will be able to judge if these are still open wounds when that second vote comes.

The UN weapons inspectors could report as soon as Saturday.

So on Monday, if not over the weekend, Parliament may well be debating military action after all.

The majority of Labour and Tory MPs to take part in the marathon emergency debate have expressed doubts about the wisdom of attacking the Assad regime.

And Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick quit his frontbench role as shadow transport spokesman.

Earlier in the Commons, Mr Fitzpatrick said he would vote against both the government and Labour's amendment as he opposes military intervention of any kind.

This is despite Mr Cameron's insistence that action would be justified to prevent further "war crimes" and would be in line with international law, even if it was opposed at the UN by Russia and China.

BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson said he believed the government would still win Thursday night's vote - partly because Conservative MPs would be unwilling to hand Labour a victory.

But a bitter war of words has broken out between Downing Street and the Labour leader, who they accuse of "playing politics" with the Syria issue.

According to The Times newspaper, a government source used a string of expletives to describe Mr Miliband's attitude and said: "The French hate him now and he's got no chance of building an alliance with the US Democratic Party."

Downing Street director of communications Craig Oliver is reported to have accused Mr Miliband of giving "succour to Assad".

Labour frontbencher Michael Dugher has written to Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood to complain about what he called Mr Oliver's "infantile and irresponsible" comments, which he claimed "demeans the office of prime minister".

'Humanitarian catastrophe'

Setting out the government's case at the beginning of the special Commons debate, Mr Cameron described last week's attack on the outskirts of Damascus as "one of the most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons in a century, slaughtering innocent men, women and children".

He said: "Interfering in another country's affairs should not be undertaken except in the most exceptional circumstances. It must be a humanitarian catastrophe and it must be a last resort.

"But by any standards, this is a humanitarian catastrophe, and if there are no consequences for it there is nothing to stop Assad and other dictators from using these weapons again and again."

He said it was "not about taking sides in the conflict" or "regime change" but responding to a "war crime".

In a swipe at his Labour predecessor, Tony Blair, Mr Cameron said, "The well of public opinion has been well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode."

But he insisted the current crisis was not like Iraq and MPs would "decide which next steps" the UK would take.

Labour and the Syrian crisis

How Labour's position on Syria has developed this week:

  • Monday: Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander asked for a recall of Parliament saying he would "expect the prime minister to make his case to Parliament" before a decision was made about UK involvement.
  • Tuesday: Ed Miliband said there was a "lot of evidence" pointing to the past use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime but any international response must be legally sound and be based on precise, achievable objectives. He did not mention the UN.
  • Wednesday morning: Mr Alexander stressed the need to see evidence from UN weapons inspectors.
  • Wednesday evening: At 17:15 BST Mr Miliband called the prime minister and said he could not promise support for the government's motion and would table an amendment.
  • Wednesday evening: Labour published an amendment calling for "compelling evidence" that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons before agreeing to support a military response.
  • Thursday: Labour says it will vote against the government's "opaque" motion.

Mr Miliband told MPs he was not against military intervention. But he said Britain had to be "clear-eyed" about the possible consequences of such action - including deepening Britain's involvement in Syria's bitter civil war.

'Horrific events'

He said Britain should not make the decision based on an "artificial timetable or political timetable set elsewhere", but should instead follow Labour's "sequential road map" - which includes gathering "compelling evidence" that President Assad's regime was to blame for last week's attack.

"I'm not with those who rule out action - the horrific events unfolding in Syria do ask us to consider the options available," said Mr Miliband.

"But we owe it to the Syrian people, to our own country and to the future security of our world to scrutinise any plans on the basis of the consequences they have."

Downing Street has released a statement, based on legal advice by Attorney General Dominic Grieve, that states limited military strikes to deter future chemical weapons attacks would be in line with international law.

An assessment published by the Joint Intelligence Committee also argued it was "not possible for the opposition to have carried out a chemical weapons attack on this scale".

However, Labour MPs will vote there must be "compelling evidence" that the Syrian regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons. Plaid Cymru and the SNP will also back the Labour amendment.

Iraq 'scars'

Conservative MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chairman of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, was one of the relatively few backbench voices to back military action.

He told MPs failing to act would give the Syrian regime in Damascus a rationale for using chemical weapons in the future.

Another former foreign secretary, Conservative peer Lord Hurd said: "I cannot for the life of me see how dropping some bombs or firing some missiles in the general direction of Syria" will lessen the "suffering of Syrian people".

"I think it's likely to increase and expand the civil war in Syria."

Labour MP Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary when the UK joined the US in attacking Iraq in 2003, said that conflict had raised the bar on the quality of intelligence needed for military intervention and he was not convinced there was enough evidence yet to justify action in Syria.

"We all know - I have the scars about this - how easy it is to get into military action and how difficult it is to get out of it," he told MPs.

Syria has accused the West of "inventing" excuses to launch a strike and says a UK strike would be an "aggressive and unprovoked act of war".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Is this why Obama was given a peace prize?

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    Sky News: Russian ships heading for the Med... well, you pick a fight...

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    @45 If Syria "must be held accountable" then why haven't we done the same for China and the human rights abuses and murder of civilians that its regime has carried out in Tibet? Or in Zimbabwe? How about Miramar where civlilians are being abused and murdered to this day? We've kept out of those-why is Syria different? Because the West will "use" Syria in order to eventually attack Iran.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    Why is it acceptable to kill civilians with guns and rifles, but killing civilians with chemical weapons "crosses the line"?

    Because chemical weapons cause a slow and agonising death. Most of the world agrees, which is why the majority of countries have signed treaties banning their use. If I had to choose how to die, I'd much rather get shot than gassed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    I fear Miliband is just jumping on the public opinion band wagon, Labour are hardly the ones to preach about war with their track record. Milliband is just good cop to Camerons bad cop. All in it together remember...

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    Hesitation by USA in dealing with Balkan tragedy led to the loss of thousands of innocents. Syria is a no-win situation --- sit on your hands and the Middle East will go to pot. The whole of Europe (all of us so near to Syria) will need to join forces on this one, otherwise UK & USA will, as usual, end up in the dog house !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    It's a proxy war really, isn't it?

    Saudi vs Iran.

    Plus vested interests, ideology, world view, various alliances, contracts etc.

    Iran's ambitions to enlighten the world are about to take a squeeze.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    Let's hope that all sides, on calm reflection, will conclude that military intervention would be counter-productive for the UK (and the USA) as well as probably ineffective in stopping Assad's murderous regime. We don't need yet more enemies and we can't afford to waste more lives, equipment and money on foreign adventures. We have no right, or even the capability, to act as a world police force

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    I have to give the plaudits to Labour on this. They have insisted on waiting for the inspectors report, a stark contrast to Iraq and Hans Blix who was pulled out of Iraq so that war could start.
    Ed has read the public mood correctly.
    Clegg on R4 this morning sounded weak, indecisive and harrassed, blaming Assad when the jury is still out on who is responsible.
    Cameron strangly quiet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    The yanks being hypocritical as usual. This weekend we should meet in our cities, towns and villages and make it clear to our government, that we want no part in this. Where were you for the Iraq war peace march's?

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    Ed Milliband showed some fine spine. He was late in straightening his back over Syria, but he has come correct. A man who can stick to his principles and represent the common will by marrying moral rectitude to pragmatism and opportunism; has a future in British politics. DC and WH are consumed in the same zeal as Tony Blair et all, and will be consigned to the same place after 2015.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    I e-mailed my protest to my MP, the PM, Deputy PM, and Leader of the Opposition yesterday because,as my TU Secretary used to say when viewing a barely-quorate annual general meeting in the 1970s. 'Those who've stayed away obviously agree with what we're about to decide'.

    'All that is required for evil to flourish in this world is that good men do nothing': Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797)

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    The west is being tricked into doing someone else's dirty work again. The majority seem to be able to spot this, why can't our governments? Or do they already know this and are complicit in this proxy action? And why, when the Syrian government were losing did they not use these weapons, but now they've turned the tide, do they decide to use them? I can smell a rat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    Re repeated threads on Syria:

    One of the well-proven techniques used in brainwashing captives, is to ask a question, and despite a satisfactory answer being given, ask it again, and again, and again.

    Eventually the subject loses their opinion.

    Of course, that's not what's being done here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    Help not more harm .. that's the way to win friends.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    It doesn't matter how many times the BBC opens this up for comments, my opinion will not change. You can keep asking the question but my answer will be the same...

    We should NOT be going into yet another conflict which has nothing to do with us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    Turkey had found chemical ingredients for Sarin gas and canisters etc along its borders in what it calls Syrian Rebel hideouts so why is the UK USA France so quick to point the finger at Assad? when there is blatant evidence that the rebels are manufacturing Sarin Gas the same chemical weapon said to be used in these attacks?
    There's also unconfirmed video showing rebels deploying gasseous weapons

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    It seems a little rich for a labour politician to be scoring points off the errors made in Iraq! Plenty of MP's on all sides really wanted to wait to ensure we gave time for a UN report and to only proceed with full UN backing, I think Obama wants the same rather than being pressed ganged by republicans.The most aggresive response to the crisi has actually come from france who seem very determined

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    Stop The War Coalition demo on Saturday 31st August 12 noon - London starting from Temple - check out their website... SYRIA NOT IN MY NAME! Other vigils etcetera happening on different days around the UK .

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    I am shocked and appalled by peoples reactions. Even if you are against intervention, which is understandable, how can people be so callous about slaughter?

    Human beings are being killed in a horrific and indiscriminate ways and people are ignoring it completely.

    Fine if you fear intervention will make things worse but what is with this complete indifference to human suffering?


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