RECRIMINATIONS flew at Westminster yesterday as the fallout from David Cameron’s parliamentary defeat over military action in Syria exposed a bitter divide between the main party leaders.
As Cabinet ministers expressed disappointment that some Tory back-benchers had joined Labour and the SNP in voting against the government, details emerged of a furious exchange between the Prime Minister and Ed Miliband which took place when the Labour leader announced he would not be supporting British military intervention.
Mr Cameron told Mr Miliband he was “letting down America” during a heated telephone call on Wednesday night. The Prime Minister went on to accuse Mr Miliband of “siding with Lavrov” – the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov who was urging Britain not to join forces with the US in attacking its Middle Eastern ally.
Sources said that Mr Cameron reacted angrily when Mr Miliband said the Prime Minister should allow a second vote on military action once the evidence collected in Damascus was published and the United Nations Security Council had voted.
Mr Cameron had already agreed to publish legal advice and intelligence gathered on the chemical attacks.
Despite the bitter exchange, Mr Cameron agreed, within hours, to accept Mr Miliband’s demand in the government’s motion – only for both it and the Labour amendment to be defeated in the House of Commons the following night, effectively ruling out any military action by British forces.
Yesterday, a number of politicians claimed that parliament’s decision to oppose the government and reject military intervention in Syria had left Britain’s global standing diminished. And Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond accused Mr Miliband of giving “succour” to Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, by refusing to support the government’s own plan.
However, senior Labour sources have accused Mr Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of being “gung-ho” in the run-up to the vote, and “cavalier” in their attitude to the UN process. They were also questioning whether Mr Cameron fatally damaged his case from the start by pledging unconditional support to US President Barack Obama – support which he was unable to then deliver.
Mr Cameron yesterday said it was a “regret” that he had been unable to build a consensus on the response to the suspected chemical weapons attack.
However, he insisted the UK remained “deeply engaged” on the world stage and that President Obama would “understand” the feelings within the UK parliament over the matter.
Mr Miliband said the government must not “wash its hands” of Syria, but instead find “other ways” to put pressure on Assad.
But the parliamentary events of Thursday night have left bitter scars between the two sides.
Downing Street sources were quoted accusing Mr Miliband of “playing politics” with the Syria issue, in order to engineer a government defeat.
One was quoted as saying: “The French hate him now and he’s got no chance of building an alliance with the US Democratic Party.”
However, Labour sources said they blamed Mr Cameron’s “high-handed” approach to the affair in the days running up to the vote for the failure to find common ground.
They said Mr Miliband and shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander raised concerns about the need to allow time for the UN weapons inspectors, the question of escalation, and the legal basis for action, at a face-to-face meeting with Mr Cameron on Tuesday.
When, the following day, they were presented with a draft government motion which did not mention the need for a second vote after the UN weapons inspectors had reported back, they repeated their concerns.
As a result, Mr Miliband decided later that evening that he would not accept the government’s motion, following a phone conference with the shadow cabinet, and agreed to lay a Labour amendment proposing a second vote on military action, once all the evidence from the UN had been gathered.
It was when Mr Miliband called Mr Cameron to inform him of his decision that the Prime Minister is said to have accused him of “letting down America”.
Mr Cameron used an interview yesterday to defend his handling of the affair. “I have a very strong view that we need to take a tough and robust approach around the world to an appalling war crime but I am also a democrat who believes in talking and listening to parliament.
“Parliament spoke and it made a very clear view that it doesn’t want military action so we will proceed on that basis. I am determined that we do things in a different way to how they were done in the past.”
Former Tory leader Lord Howard said the Labour leader must explain why he had “changed his position so many times during the course of a day or two” in the run-up to the vote – adding that the result was a “setback” to Britain’s standing in the world.
Former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown turned his fire on Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MPs who refused to back the government, writing on Twitter that he felt “depressed and ashamed” that people felt the atrocities in Syria were “none of our business”.
“I think it diminishes our country hugely,” he told the BBC news channel.