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 952.

    The only time for military action is ,If the UN, inspectors find evidence that Bashar al - Assads regime is responsible for using poison gas on its people, and it must be a UN, mandate, not the US or BRITON to make the choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 951.

    If the U.N. decide that action is called for, then fine. However, if there is a veto, then we should keep away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 950.

    The time has come for David Cameron to get a backbone and tell America and Obama where to go. If America wants to bankrupt itself, have it's you men and women killed in illegal wars just so that the US can pretend to be the World Police, let them get on with it.

    We should be aligning ourselves with Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 949.

    Boots on the ground? No. Chopper and jet airstrikes? Potentially. However, it also gives us a chance to use our new destroyers from a sea-to-land scenario. Argentina will be watching closely if this happens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 948.


    I don't think anyione on here has shown indifference to the suffering. I think most people are opf the opinion that military action is not the answer. The wars in the middle east over the past 5 years are proven testiment to this

  • rate this

    Comment number 947.

    If there was ever a reason for Scottish independence, this is it. Alex Salmond is taking a considered and careful approach unlike Mrs David Obama....and no, I am not one of the pro-independence brigade but I'm fast changing my mind.

  • Comment number 946.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 945.

    This the US version of strategic planning:

    Wesley Clark (US 4 Star General) US will attack 7 countries in 5 years:

    Its all about control, regime change and hidden agendas

  • rate this

    Comment number 944.

    I believe military intervention is necessary, but, and this is the crucial bit, NOT BY US!

    We're a small island 1000 miles away, up to our eyeballs in debt, and with hardly sufficient military to protect ourselves.

    Let someone else deal with this, like the Arab League for example.

  • rate this

    Comment number 943.

    " Why never ask if it could have been the rebels?"

    Actually I've heard that question on the BBC a few times, Radio 4 and the World Service. The consensus is that the rebels are unlikely to have the capability. I say unlikely not impossible.

    But yes we must see the evidence before being dragged in. International Law must come first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 942.

    Its all quite fun really, highly entertaining to see baddies versus baddies slogging it out in Syria, and the world's policeman and puppy dithering. And now Labour is keeping the government in suspense. Wait until next week when the UN inspectors deliver a highly ambiguous report. Its a giggle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 941.

    If we want to apportion blame then it should be levelled at those that ARE to blame.
    Its high time that arms manufacturers were made to pay for the destruction they cause by selling weapons to those regimes which they KNOW are corrupt .
    Never mind a moratorium on Chemical weapons stop sending guns & bullets.
    Seal the borders search everything & wait till they run out of ammo!

  • rate this

    Comment number 940.

    OK I get it the government screwed up, but UKIP?

    Are you people so deluded to not understand UKIP would be like David Cameron on steroids!. they will do NO good for our country and would impose far worse cuts that the public WOULD notice.

    They are a snake party worming their way into politics.

    LabConLib are just as bad, its time for a NEW way of thinking in line with a MODERN SOCIETY.

  • rate this

    Comment number 939.

    #886 "the US secret services are behind it all."

    It is still possible to oppose military action and not write this kind of rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 938.

    & 45

    I take it you don't follow the news very often? Millions and millions have not died as you suggested, recently the figure for dead went over 100 thousand which is no where near over 1 million, 2 million or whatever you thought the figure was. Everything should be debated because we are supposed to be a democracy, it makes sense to have 2 debates on Syria. Oh and most people are not for war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 937.

    To hit all the alleged sites 9 alleged sites in 4 suburbs; the safe direction of fire could only come from the South East from the Airport, or the north side of the Qasioun. Any other directions would have threatened hitting central Dasmasus with all the main government officer. This was carefully planned, coordinated by an artillery brigade using 155mm binary artillery, mortar or small missiles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 936.

    Ed may still say NO - GOOD

    Dave "let's be clear" - "we're all in it together" Cameron, well I don't think so. Just another arrogant nasty Etonian.

  • rate this

    Comment number 935.

    Nothing like the deaths of hundreds to bring out the Armchair Lawyers and the multitudes of procrastinators. How many more have to die before action is taken.?

    Ed seems to be in a quandary.. mmm
    Do I do the right thing or do I s#!#w my chances at the next election..
    Oh dear decisions, decisions, I know... Let's delay things
    A few more hundred dead won't matter... will it,,, will it..??

  • rate this

    Comment number 934.

    Something for Ed Miliband and Diane Abbott to ponder -

    Russia is now sending warships to the Mediterranean : this is what happens when you delay.

    Is that what Ed and Diane wanted?

  • rate this

    Comment number 933.

    If Labour throw their low in with this rotten government on Syria then they can forget MY vote at the next general election. I'll vote UKIP, the only major party that has any perspective on the matter


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