Defeat for Cameron over Syria spells humiliation and isolation

Prime minister's failure to secure backing for action against Damascus is not just a personal blow - it widens the gap between Britain and its allies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 11:02am

British Prime Minister David Cameron was counting the cost yesterday after a humiliating rejection by parliament of his call for military action on Syria, a defeat which dealt a severe blow to the "special relationship" with the United States.

By just 13 votes, lawmakers threw out an anodyne motion urging an international response to a chemical weapons strike for which the US has blamed the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Commentators said it was the first time a British prime minister had lost a vote on war since 1782.

A potentially damaging picture emerged of the government's chaotic organisation of the vote, with some ministers failing to cast ballots because they did not hear the warning bell.

As tempers flared, Education Secretary Michael Gove screamed abuse at fellow Conservative lawmakers who voted against their party's coalition government.

Defence Minister Philip Hammond prompted fury among opposition ranks after he accused the Labour leader Ed Miliband of providing "succour" to Assad's regime by opposing the government.

However, Cameron is likely to bear most responsibility for the result. He reportedly encouraged Barack Obama to pledge action over Syria. But now the US president is left to pursue a military option without his closest ally and the country that gave US forces the strongest backing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cameron said he did not feel he should apologise to Obama, and said he hoped the US leader would understand that he had had to seek parliament's approval before action.

"I don't think it's a question of having to apologise," he said.

George Jones, professor emeritus of government at the London School of Economics, compared the decision about Syria to parliament's vote in 1782 to have British forces call it quits during the American Revolution.

The last time the government was knocked off course by parliament like this was in the 1780s, when Parliament accepted that we'd lost the war of American independence and gave up America

"The last time the government was knocked off course by parliament like this was in the 1780s, when Parliament accepted that we'd lost the war of American independence and gave up America. So this is a pretty important event," said Jones.

Finance minister George Osborne acknowledged that Britain's inability to commit forces to any US-led operation against the Assad regime would damage the so-called "special relationship" with Washington.

"I think that there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system," Osborne said.

It was widely expected that Cameron would win Thursday night's relatively meaningless vote on a motion supporting the notion that the chemical attack required an international humanitarian response that could involve military action.

Instead, the motion was rejected 285-272. After the shocking defeat, Cameron was clear.

"I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons," he said.

"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."

The defeat, a sign of Cameron's weakness, is also a measure of Britain's increasing isolation from its allies - both inside the European Union and now Washington. A strong anti-European wave on the British right led Cameron to promise a referendum on continued British membership in the European Union.

The New York Times, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse