August 31, 2013 10:37 pm

UK caught on back foot by US decision

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David Cameron on Saturday endorsed US President Barack Obama’s decision to consult Congress over military intervention in Syria, tweeting that he supported and endorsed the US leader’s position.

Mr Obama caught the UK by surprise after announcing that he wanted to secure congressional support for any action as he in effect ruled out an expected military air strike this weekend.

“I understand and support Barack Obama’s decision on Syria,” Mr Cameron tweeted on Saturday night.

But some politicians expressed frustration over events which saw the British prime minister suffer an embarrassing defeat in parliament when his attempt to rush through a parliamentary vote on intervention spectacularly backfired.

“It demonstrates how foolish Ed Miliband [Labour leader] and the Tory rebels were in rushing to judgment when they had been promised there would be further opportunity for a decisive vote,” Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former foreign secretary, told the Financial Times on Saturday night. “That would have allowed the decision to be taken when more of the facts were known. That would have spared the UK international embarrassment.”

The UK prime minister recalled Parliament on Thursday to secure support for military action ahead of weekend at the behest of the White House. But Mr Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat after the opposition Labour party and dozens of his own MPs voted down his motion expressing support military action.

Government insiders conceded after the defeat that the outcome might had been different had the prime minister been given more time to prepare the ground, but had been held to a tight timetable by the US.

Richard Ottaway, a senior Conservative and chairman of the foreign policy select committee, said Mr Obama’s decision reflected the dilemmas facing world leaders on how to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria amid deep unease in their own countries over intervention.

“It shows President Obama wants to be sure Congress is with him on this. As we have seen, there is a huge range of opinions and this is a significant step,” said Mr Ottaway.

Politicians who have supported the intervention said on Saturday they hoped the US shift might pave the way for Britain to reconsider its position after Downing Street on Friday ruled out any involvement in military action following the parliamentary vote.

In depth

Syria crisis

An apparent chemical attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad on a Damascus suburb has shifted opinion in the west towards possible military intervention

“The longer the debate goes on in the US, the more the information will come out; that does leave open the prospect of Ed Miliband and Cameron reaching some agreement on this,” said one senior politician.

“We may be in a position in two weeks’ time where Congress has voted to back military action and the UN weapon inspectors have provided more graphic detail on what happened,” said another Conservative MP. “People might change their minds.”

But in London, senior government officials said that is spite of Mr Obama’s decision to delay military action, Mr Cameron has no intention to ask parliament to reconsider Thursday’s vote, which ruled out backing a strike on Syria.

“The Commons made clear last Thursday it does not want military action,” said a senior official. “Despite this new decision by Mr Obama, this is still where things stand.”

Brooks Newmark, a Tory MP, conceded that in hindsight Mr Cameron’s rushed attempt to push through a vote was unnecessary but added that the US president’s decision to consult Congress was “a positive”.

Labour, which on Thursday opposed the government motion to endorse the principle of military intervention, refused to be drawn on whether Mr Miliband might now endorse some form of British involvement if Mr Obama secured congressional support.

But Downing Street insiders, deeply angered by the Labour leader’s refusal to support Mr Cameron, said Mr Obama’s decision would put him in an awkward position should US politicians support action. “Miliband played politics. It will be fascinating to watch their desperate repositioning,” said a Number 10 official on Saturday night.

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