David Cameron’s plan for strikes against Syria was defeated as he became the first British prime minister in at least 150 years to lose a parliamentary vote on military action, once again demonstrating his weakness in the face of his own Conservative Party.
Minutes after the defeat in the House of Commons last night by 285 votes to 272 of his already watered-down motion seeking authorization in principle for military strikes, the prime minister told lawmakers the U.K. will play no part in any response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Al-Assad against his own people. Coalition lawmakers joined the opposition to defeat the proposal.
“The British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not wish to see British military action,” Cameron said. “I get that and the government will act accordingly.”
The premier, who summoned back Parliament early from its summer break for the vote, was “humiliated,” the Times newspaper said on its front page this morning. The premier failed to judge the hostility of lawmakers on all sides to his plan to intervene in Syria, just three months after more than a third of his party made history by voting against his legislative program, known as the Queen’s Speech, because of the absence of a bill for a referendum on leaving the European Union.
“They decided to rewrite the Queen’s Speech, now they’ve decided to change foreign policy,” Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University and author of a book on parliamentary revolts, said in a telephone interview. “If you can do one, you can do the other.”
Any imminent U.S.-led action against Syria will now have to go ahead without direct British involvement.
“We understand the country’s not with us,” Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told BBC Radio 4 today. “We respect it and as a result Britain’s not going to be involved in any military action.”
According to Cowley, there are no precedents in more than 150 years for such a defeat. Even before then, they were sufficiently uncommon that the most famous is the 1782 vote of no confidence in Lord North, who as prime minister oversaw Britain’s defeat in the American War of Independence.
Thirty of Cameron’s 304 Tory lawmakers and nine of the 55 Liberal Democrats who are their coalition partners joined the opposition Labour Party in opposing Cameron’s plan, according to a tally by Britain’s Press Association.
There was fury within government after the result. Scottish National Party lawmaker Angus Robertson told Sky News television he witnessed Education Secretary Michael Gove shout “you’re a disgrace, you’re a disgrace” at a number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat rebels.
“Cameron won’t have to resign,” Cowley said. “It’s embarrassing, but you shrug your shoulders and move on.”
Both Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who heads the Liberal Democrats, and Labour leader Ed Miliband said they favored strikes against Syria subject to conditions. Miliband put forward an amendment to Cameron’s motion that imposed tighter conditions on any military action.
Miliband and Cameron ordered their lawmakers to vote against each other’s proposals, with the result that both were defeated. This also broke with precedent. The opposition had supported the government on every British military action since the 1956 Suez Crisis.
“There will be a period of national soul-searching,” Osborne told the BBC. “We have to respect what has happened in our country in the last 10 years -- the war weariness and a deep-seated public desire that the government will focus on domestic problems. I hope this doesn’t become a moment when we turn our back on all the world’s problems.”
Cameron had attempted to ward off the prospect of defeat by pledging that Parliament would have a second vote before the government ordered any military strikes against Syrian targets, and that there’d be no action before United Nations inspectors have reported back on the alleged chemical attacks near Damascus last week, which Syrian opposition groups say killed 1,300 people.
The prime minister was under no legal obligation to hold a vote, as military force is authorized in Britain under the royal prerogative, using power delegated to the prime minister from the monarch. Still, since Labour’s Tony Blair gave lawmakers a vote on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, politicians including Cameron have accepted they should seek Parliament’s consent.
The shadow of Iraq hung over yesterday’s debate, cited again and again both by supporters and opponents of action in Syria.
“The well of public opinion was well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode,” Cameron said as he opened the debate. “This is not like Iraq, what we are seeing in Syria is fundamentally different. We are not invading a country.”
Miliband said the vote “shows that Britain is learning the lessons of the past, including the lessons of Iraq.”
Any “military intervention and action should be through the proper processes of the UN,” he told the BBC. “The kind of leadership Britain needs is calm and measured leadership, not reckless and impulsive leadership.”
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