Last updated: August 30, 2013 1:00 am

Cameron fails in quest for political unity over Syria

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David Cameron was left a diminished figure both at home and on the world stage on Thursday after suffering defeat in the Commons over his attempts to convince his own benches to support intervention in Syria.

The prime minister was defeated on his motion despite going to extraordinary lengths to bring his party with him.

One Conservative MP called the vote a “crushing blow”, adding: “It is hugely damaging to him on a domestic level. His whips clearly misread the party. But worse, he is severely diminished on the world stage. What does this look like to Obama, Merkel, and Hollande? It is deeply embarrassing.”

Mr Cameron was quick to admit defeat, promising to adhere to the will of both the British public and parliament.

But the vote shocked Downing Street aides, who had talked of having overwhelming support. As Number 10 digested the result, recriminations began to fly about how the vote was lost, with MPs complaining of a poor whipping operation and accusing the government of comprehensively misreading the mood in the Commons.

With as many as 30 Labour MPs absent, early calculations suggested that more than 30 Conservative MPs had decided to oppose the prime minister’s motion in an almost unprecedented show of parliamentary force.

The result came despite Mr Cameron’s efforts to rise above the party political fray when he urged MPs to “maintain the international taboo” over the use of chemical weapons in war by endorsing the principle of a military response against the Assad regime.

The prime minister, faced with Labour opposition as well as deep unease in his own party, had been forced to postpone a vote authorising military action.

But he told a packed Commons that he had tabled a watered-down motion because he wanted to build a united response to the chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus. “In drawing up my motion I want to unite as much of the country and the house as possible. I think it is right, on these vital issues of national and international importance, to seek the greatest possible consensus,” he told MPs.

“It’s not about taking sides; it’s not about invading; it’s not about regime change. It’s about chemical weapons: our response to a war crime – nothing else.”

Mr Cameron reassured sceptical MPs that Britain would wait for a UN resolution on Syria before taking action – as requested by Labour. He also reassured MPs they would have a second vote on any direct military action as he tried to build support for the government motion in the face of Labour’s opposition.

But the statesmanlike manner of the debate belied the bitter row being played out between Downing Street and the Labour leadership after two days of negotiations. No 10 accused Ed Miliband of giving “succour” to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by blocking the early Commons vote on military action. Downing Street aides derided the Labour leader’s “flipping and flopping” over Syria.

“We gave ground [on Wednesday night] and still they are voting against. The prime minister feels that Miliband has been playing politics in this very late in the day,” said a spokesman after Mr Miliband’s decision to withdraw his apparent support for immediate action at the eleventh hour.

Labour retorted that the criticism was “uncalled for” and said such remarks were “demeaning to the debate”.

The party, proposing its own amendment, refused to back the government motion on the grounds that it hinted at military action and did not commit to producing “compelling evidence” of Mr Assad’s involvement in gas attacks.

“I’m not with those who rule out action – the horrific events unfolding in Syria do ask us to consider the options available,” said Mr Miliband. “But we owe it to the Syrian people, to our own country and to the future security of our world to scrutinise any plans on the basis of the consequences they have.”

Mr Cameron has now been hamstrung, even those on his own side admit. “The prime minister talked about paralysis in this speech and that is the sense of where we now are,” said one aide.

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