David Cameron backed down from asking lawmakers for immediate support today for possible U.K. military strikes on Syria after the Labour opposition demanded a delay until United Nations inspectors report on the alleged use of chemical weapons.
The premier had intended to call in a House of Commons debate starting at 2:30 p.m. in London for backing for a military response to what he says is clear evidence of a chemical-weapons attack near Damascus last week by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. He pledged instead last night to hold a further vote in Parliament before any action is taken.
The debate is scheduled to last nearly eight hours before a vote after 10 p.m. in London. The government announced its change of heart 90 minutes after the opposition Labour Party tabled an amendment opposing any U.K. military action before the inspectors, who are now on the ground in Syria, make their report. Some in the governing Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are wary of supporting attacks, raising the prospect that Cameron might have been defeated.
“We are ensuring the House of Commons has the final say before any direct British involvement -– one vote tomorrow, and another one if and when we are asked to participate directly,” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said in an e-mail to members of his Liberal Democrat party last night. “Any case for international action must be taken to the UN in an effort to achieve as great an international consensus as possible.”
For many, the shadow of Tony Blair’s 2003 decision to join the invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein hangs over the debate. That cost Blair popularity, eventually leading to his resignation as premier and Labour Party leader in 2007. In the fallout, Cameron has tried to position himself as a pragmatist, rather than an idealist, in foreign affairs.
“I’m normally really hawkish, but I’m not feeling that way on this one,” Chris Heaton-Harris, a lawmaker from Cameron’s Conservatives, said in a telephone interview. “My voters are in the same place as I am -- lots are really concerned that this will be a second Iraq.”
The U.S. and Britain say there’s little doubt that Assad’s forces are responsible for the chemical attacks that opposition groups say killed more than 1,300 people. Cameron brought lawmakers back from their summer break four days early for the debate.
“Before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place,” the government motion states. “Every effort should be made to secure a Security Council resolution backing military action.”
One Tory lawmaker who’s been a critic of some government policies questioned why Cameron had asked for Parliament to reconvene.
“What is the point of a recall for an expensive whipped and now meaningless vote?” Sarah Wollaston wrote on her Twitter feed. “It’s not so much a dog’s breakfast as a dog’s motion.”
Labour backed away yesterday from initial tentative support for strikes, saying the UN had to be involved and calling on the U.S. and U.K. governments to show lawmakers the evidence they have for blaming the Syrian regime.
“We want to see the report of the weapons inspectors who are presently on the ground presented to the Security Council of the United Nations prior to action being taken,” its foreign-affairs spokesman, Douglas Alexander, told the BBC.
Cameron has 304 Tory lawmakers in the Commons and Clegg 55 Liberal Democrats to Labour’s 257.
Foreign Secretary William Hague argued yesterday, before the government’s climbdown, against any delay.
“It’s very important not to take so long to respond that people confuse what the eventual response is about,” he told reporters. “There is no comparison between this and Iraq. This is where a crime against humanity has been committed.”
The U.K. military has presented Cameron with an option for a short yet intensive strike on Syria using Trafalgar-class submarines and Tornado aircraft alongside U.S. forces, according to a person familiar with the planning. Submarines would launch Tomahawk cruise missiles and the Tornado attack aircraft would fire Storm Shadow missiles, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private.
A YouGov Plc poll published in yesterday’s Sun newspaper found 50 percent of respondents opposing missile strikes, with 25 percent in favor. YouGov questioned 1,991 people Aug. 26 and Aug. 27 for the poll, for which no margin of error was specified.
Cameron has been in the vanguard of calls for action in the Middle East and spent the final weekend of his vacation phoning fellow leaders, arguing the case for a military response in Syria, before returning to London early.
In 2011, the prime minister was the first head of a Western government to visit Egypt after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Later that year he joined France’s Nicolas Sarkozy in taking military action against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.
Hours after walking round Tahrir Square during that 2011 visit to Cairo, Cameron told reporters he was “not a neoconservative who believes you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet.” The next day, though, he told an audience at Kuwait’s National Assembly that “denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability.”
“Cameron abroad has all the same contradictions as at home, but more so,” Francis Elliott, co-author of “Cameron: Practically a Conservative,” a biography of the prime minister, said in a phone interview. “He goes through the same tensions between pragmatism and idealism that have formed so much of his leadership. But it’s notable that on foreign affairs in the end he’s come down on the idealistic side.”
Blair is a significant influence on Cameron, according to Elliott. The man who defeated the Conservatives in three straight elections is admired by many Tories. Both Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Education Secretary Michael Gove, a friend of Cameron’s, have praised his foreign policy, which included the decision to go to war in Iraq.
Writing in the Times newspaper on Aug. 27, Blair urged an intervention in Syria.
“After the long and painful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, I understand every impulse to stay clear of the turmoil, to watch but not to intervene, to ratchet up language but not to engage in the hard, even harsh business of changing reality on the ground,” Blair wrote. “It is time we took a side: the side of the people who want what we want; who see our societies for all their faults as something to admire; who know that they should not be faced with a choice between tyranny and theocracy.”