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 872.

    If terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of idealistic aims then the US government is the biggest terrorist organisation in the world. That should be a common perception within the UK so why would anybody want their tax money to be spent assisting the brutal US regime? US 7 country plan outlined in 2002: Iraq, Libya, Iran, North Korea, Russia, China. 3/7 and counting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 871.

    I never thought I would ever say this to an MP, but well done Miliband for listening to your people for once and doing the correct thing. After this Syria issue has been mitigated in the correct manner we can deal with other major crimes against humanity, such as corporate greed and their monopolies, the supressive evils of the NSA & GCHQ, and our so called anti 'terrorism' laws.

  • rate this

    Comment number 870.

    Cameron will claim we have a "moral" obligation to help the Syrian people. What I retort with is that we have a moral obligation to not drag the British public and our servicemen and women into a conflict without any proof whatsoever that it was Assad's regime that carried out this attack.

    But what does Cameron know about morals and evidence based decision making?

  • rate this

    Comment number 869.

    This is a powder keg. Syria may sink some US ships and attack Israel. Israel would retaliate massively. Iran could join in [they know they are next]. Fighting could start between Sunnis and Shias throughout the middle east. We have the US and Europe versus Russia and China. There is the possibility of it escalating into WWIII. The UK should pull back and try to stop any attacks on Syria.

  • rate this

    Comment number 868.

    I am disgusted that so many people are against our involvement in any action against Syria, where it be legal under the UN or in coalition with the US.

    Every nation, if it is able, has a moral obligation to step in to defend innocents whose lives are put in peril by their own Governments.

    Just like you have a moral obligation to step in if you see a child being abused across the street.

  • rate this

    Comment number 867.

    "Casualty figures released by the United Nations showed 1,057 Iraqis - most of them civilians - were killed in July, making it the deadliest month in the country for years."

    and who sent in the bombs of mass destruction into iraq supposedly to bring peace to we believe them this time in syria

  • rate this

    Comment number 866.

    We know how this story ends Syria bombed Assad falls creating 3 or even 4 or 5 sided civil war in Syria with loads of Syrian women & children killed mass atrocities & genocide. Then our political elites say that working class lads from cities & towns around the UK have to go in & keep the peace/create democracy many of them are killed & maimed. No not this time you privileged clowns.

  • rate this

    Comment number 865.

    Ed, try making a policy decision and then sticking with it. First you backed action then you backed down.

    To be fair he always said any action must be legal.

    This means that the UN must back action and that Russia and China must not oppose any motion.

    The evidence from the inspectors will be key.

    If it doesn't convince Russia/China then we should not act.

  • rate this

    Comment number 864.

    Finally, our Government has realised that the electorate no longer accepts HMG & BBC mis-information and so is now showing signs of backing-down.

    We must keep up the pressure by bombarding as many MPs as possible, not just your own MP, with emails stating clearly 'not in my name' and that voting for intervention could cost them their seat.

    We CAN stop this insanity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 863.

    This is and has always been about regime change in Syria, for Cameron and his puppet Clegg to suggest otherwise is a lie. At least Labour is being a little more cautious this time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 862.

    This is all a tiny bit late. The government is clearly using chemical weapons as an excuse to get involved but if they really wanted to stop the killing they'd have gotten involved two years ago. The government just want to make sure their preferred side wins.

    On the other hand Labour have again seen the government position and decided to oppose it because it's the government position.

  • rate this

    Comment number 861.

    oh dear Mr Camaron, he hasn't even got the backing of his own backbenchers, that's dented your reputation and not only in the UK

  • rate this

    Comment number 860.

    100% we should NOT get involved, its not out country, fair enough were part of the UN, therefore only the UN needs to get involved. If UK/USA do intervine there will be more riots and a greater amount of extremist problems in the western world.
    We should of learned our lesson from Iraq. The UK should focus on issues closer to home and use the money that will be wasted in better places.

  • rate this

    Comment number 859.

    I am very glad Ed Milliband acted bravely yesterday to put a brake on the headlong rush to launch attacks on Syria. I hope he and Labour are able to maintain this position which has the support of the majority in the country and resist the temptation to play macho politics. We should provide housing for refugees in protected areas, pursue Assad for war crimes, and work with the UN for ceasefire

  • rate this

    Comment number 858.

    What a slimy creep! (look it up in the dictionary perfectly acceptable)

    Who am I talking about, you decide!

    Ed Miliband who cleverly changed his mind over night to will political points for the next election.

    David Cameron standing by out dated statements from WW1 & WW2 agreed between the Allies.

    This guy is a total OMNISHAMBLES and should resign!

  • rate this

    Comment number 857.

    In all honesty I can see no positive benefit for ordinary Iraqi's of military intervention by the West

    Well they're not being ruled by Sadam anymore - a tyrant who tortured gassed and maimed his own people and killed about 1 Million of them (New York Times)
    Sadam and his evil sons are dead - that's got to be a positive benefit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 856.

    Now I couldn't really care less about Syrians or whichever side is in the right or wrong, all I see is civilians, including children being killed & however callous & cold hearted you maybe this cannot be accepted as right & that we should just turn a blind eye? There would be no middle east if we'd ignored the Nazi threat as they'd have wiped all those people out as they didn't fit their type?

  • rate this

    Comment number 855.

    So In Mali we are fighting rebels and yet In Syria the very same rebels that want to harm the west are being supported. We never learn do we..

  • rate this

    Comment number 854.

    Elsewhere I note, scientists are discussing the origins of life. Meanwhile, our politicians discuss extinguishing it.

    For a second there, I thought it was the 21st century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 853.

    The question that the belligerents need to ask is what is the end game and the exit strategy? The only stable end-point, throughout the region, is partition along ethnic and religious lines. This requires a peace conference to work out the details. Whatever the provocation, chucking in bombs and missiles won't help. UN boots on the ground might. Otherwise, endless violence, as in Iraq.


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