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 1672.

    @Sagacity -- how about Agent Orange used by US in Vietnam and Cambodia

  • rate this

    Comment number 1671.

    Ed Miliband had learned the nation's attitude towards Syrian conflict without UN investigation. Labour learnt from the past. We lost lots of our loved one in Iraq and Afghanistan going without public mandate. Our is very precious and every soldier has family. We should vote only to send them if everything comes correct by UN against Assad regime. Labour as well as rebel MP should be appreciated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1670.

    1657.Swing Lowe
    "Your behaviour is dishonest and sly" I'm certainly no labour supporter but judging by the comments on here Millibank represents the majority of the UK population, whilst the ConDems are just confirming they are totally out of touch with public opinion and they really need to stop treating the general population as idiots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1669.

    Imagine this scenario. US (with or without UK) attacks Syria, Iran retaliates by attacking Israel (they've already threatened this). US rushes to help Israel, but consequently becomes a target itself. Western Europe allies itself with the US, but Russia sides with Syria and Iran. It's a standoff. Optimists call it Cold War II but everyone knows it's only a matter of time before World War III...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1668.

    Watching Cameron in the Commons, one sees a public school boy acting like a character out of Tom Brown's schools days trying to use debating skills to push an illogical argument forward. He is Flashman in all elements and so are the views he shows...but it is 21st century and thinking people have learnt from History not to settle world events in the manor of a public school boys logic and bluster

  • rate this

    Comment number 1667.

    @1659. DumbnBass
    Civil war being the key words, Civil pertaining to it being between the government and the people (or rebels, call them what you will one name wont do there are many many subsets) Why did Britain not send the army to help the Spanish in their civil war? Why are we not pouring troops into every African civil war which many have been going longer than this pathetic little one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1666.

    I hope there are enough MPs with backbone to vote down this preposterous government proposal, ahead of "proof".

    Following an American lead and supporting its proven disastrous foreign policy has always been great folly.

    Just remember:
    Iraq and the fabricated WMD

    The British public has had enough of the rhetoric -


    "Jaw,jaw,jaw better than war,war,war

  • rate this

    Comment number 1665.

    Ed does something right!

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • rate this

    Comment number 1664.

    Cameron is once again using the terrible images of children suffering from the effects of alleged chemical attack by Assad. H e thought that would be enough to sway public opinion the first time, it wasn't, and will not be this time, until they produce irrifutable proof.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1663.

    We were deceived once by so called intelligence we cant let it happen again.
    Humanitarian aid yes, military intervention no.

    Even when it was the right thing to do it blew up in our faces.
    The Arab nations should sort this out

  • Comment number 1662.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1661.
    This makes it clear that previous chem attacks are included in Assad's list of atrocities that both the UN and the Arab League have failed, by peaceful measures, to stop. Time to intervene then? No matter who's to blame for this recent one?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1660.

    I can't help but "think" back to the 1940s when many in the US were saying the same thing (ie "it's not our war") about the war in Europe...and so I ask myself "what's different between then and now?" and I find myself answering "not a lot, we need to take action". I believe we have a moral duty to help when we can.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1659.

    Enough of this rhetorical rambling about 'moral duties'! Try viewing the situation with at least a modicum of objectivity people. Both sides in this civil war have committed atrocities and neither have been shown to truly represent the will of the Syrian people caught in the middle of all of this. How would us storming in there without all the facts or UN approval help the Syrian people at all?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1658.

    If our politicians had evidence, the'd be shouting it from the rooftops. Their new word, "likely", isn't enough for starting yet another grubby little war. Maybe if they hadn't decided what the result of any investigation was going to be before it had even started, we could take them more seriously.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1657.

    Omnishambles Miliband get on a plane and go and explain your political stance to the women and children who have been gassed in Syria.

    Your behaviour is dishonest and sly, nothing short of an attempt to win popularity for party political gain. NASTY!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1656.

    ''Israeli intelligence 'intercepted Syrian regime talk about chemical attack' '' (an attack carried out by USA backed 'rebel' terrorists)

    So the Zionist state that have not ratified the Chemical Weapons Treaty tries to stir up a bloody war against Syria by proxy using US & UK British soldiers!

  • Comment number 1655.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1654.

    Military intervention in Syria is either madness or a desire to make big money/strut the world stage. It is senseless to add another armed 'side' to the conflict - it will just get worse. Dave viewed the Arab Spring as an opportunity to sell arms - he took arms dealers to the region - so we should be sceptical this afternoon and back humanitarian not military efforts to help the country to peace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1653.

    @1640.Ken Brock
    I doubt that any Syrian, man, woman or child, cowering in their shelter cares who is sending what to kill them

    possibly not but they should, Sarin is heavier than air so the worst possible thing you can do is cower in a shelter, the best thing is to get as high up as possible - in damascus head for the nearest tower block & go to the top floor


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