Labour Undermined Britain’s Standing in Syria Vote: Ministers

Conservatives say the left acted “opportunistically” when it withheld support for airstrikes.

Briitsh foreign secretary William Hague answers questions from reporters in Whitehall, London, May 12, 2010
Briitsh foreign secretary William Hague answers questions from reporters in Whitehall, London, May 12, 2010 (FCO)

British ministers on Sunday accused the opposition Labour Party of undermining Britain’s standing in the world by blocking possible military intervention in Syria after chemical weapons were allegedly used there last week.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Foreign Secretary William Hague said in separate interviews that Labour had acted “opportunistically” by voting down a government motion that could have paved the way for British involvement in a military strike against the Middle Eastern country. “We had taken on board all the points that they had made before the debate on Thursday,” Hague, a former Conservative Party leader, told Sky News. “The Labour Party would have voted against regardless,” Osborne insisted to the BBC, adding that the opposition leader, Ed Miliband, looked “a bit less like a prime minister even than he did a few weeks ago.”

Prime Minister David Cameron failed to get Parliament’s backing for a motion on Syria despite having reportedly watered down the text in order to entice Labour to support it. The left remained apprehensive about the prospect of endorsing military strikes without the United Nations Security Council’s approval. Given the likelihood of a Chinese and Russian veto there, any intervention in Syria’s civil war would have to be without a Security Council resolution.

Thirty-nine lawmakers from the ruling Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties also voted against the motion. Most of them oppose involvement in Syria altogether.

While neither Hague nor Osborne said he expected another vote in the House of Commons to change the equation, even if more convincing evidence of chemical weapons use on the part of Syria’s government emerged, both expressed alarm that the government’s defeat would be perceived as a sign that the United Kingdom turning inward. “I hope it isn’t a great historical moment,” said Osborne. “I hope that people like myself and many others who want Britain to be an outward looking, open nation that is confident about shaping the world around it are going to go out there and win this argument.”

Hague warned, “There is some serious concern in other capitals, not just across the Atlantic but in European capitals as well, about the position [Labour has] taken in voting down a government motion which actually had in it pretty much everything that they asked for.”

The United Kingdom had supported every major American foreign policy initiative in recent years, from intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The government’s defeat in the House of Commons was also the first time since a British prime minister lost a war vote since 1782 when the country conceded defeat in the American Revolutionary War.

American president Barack Obama announced on Saturday that he, too, would request a mandate from his legislature for launching air- or missiles strikes against Syria. Although noninterventionist Republicans and some members of his own Democratic Party are likely to withhold support, the president is expected to get a majority of lawmakers behind his proposal.