British government loses vote on Syria action
Unprecedented parliamentary reverse a humiliating defeat for British prime minister David Cameron
British prime minister David Cameron speaks during a debate on Syria in the House of Commons today. Photograph: PA
In what is thought to be an unprecedented parliamentary reverse over British military action, Tory rebels joined with Labour to inflict a humiliating defeat on the prime minister.
A motion backing the use of force “if necessary” in response to last week’s deadly chemical weapons attack was rejected by 272 votes to 285, majority 13. Mr Cameron had already been forced to water down his stance — accepting Labour demands that direct British involvement would require a second vote following an investigation by United Nations weapons inspectors.
But the concession was not enough to win over enough coalition MPs, conscious that public opinion is heavily against any intervention and wary of the decade-long controversy over the Iraq war.
After the shock result and to shouts of “resign” from the Labour benches, Mr Cameron told MPs: “I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons. But I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons.
“It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the Government will act accordingly.”
It was unclear how Mr Cameron’s failure to master domestic British politics could affect US and French plans for a swift cruise missile strike against Syria - whose government has denied using chemical weapons against its citizens - or what the impact would be on Mr Cameron’s standing in Washington.
A meeting of the UN Security Council’s permanent members this evening ended quickly with no sign of progress on an agreement over the Syria crisis. The meeting started breaking up after less than an hour, with the ambassadors of China, France, Britain, Russia and the United States steadily walking out. It was the second time in two days that the five Security Council powers had left a meeting on Syria with no progress.
Syrian president Bashar Assad has said his country “will defend itself against any aggression,” signalling defiance to mounting Western warnings of a possible punitive strike. UN chemical weapons inspectors toured stricken rebel-held areas near the Syrian capital of Damascus for a third day today.
Russia has made clear it opposes any military action in Syria and suggested the rebels may have launched last week’s attack that killed hundreds of people in suburbs east of Damascus.
British aides said Mr Cameron had not spoken to US president Barack Obama since suffering the parliamentary reversal, but that there had been regular contacts at other levels.