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POLL: Devon and Cornwall's MPs split over vote on Syria

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: August 31, 2013

Sarah Wollaston

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Westcountry politicians were last night deeply divided after Parliament voted against missile strikes on Syria amid questions over David Cameron's premiership.

Tory rebel Sarah Wollaston hailed a "good day for Parliament" after MPs defeated the Government by 13 votes over possible retaliation attacks on the Assad regime after 350 civilians were killed by chemical weapons. The Totnes MP argued humanitarian assistance to Syria should not "come in the form of cruise missiles".

But former Liberal Democrat leader and ex-Yeovil MP Lord Ashdown said it left the UK a "hugely diminished country". And Stephen Gilbert, Lib Dem MP for St Austell and Newquay, argued the rejection of the Government motion would "embolden those using chemical weapons".

Meanwhile, Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, claimed the Commons voted against military action "by accident" and blamed the Prime Minister's "terrible miscalculation".

He said: "Britain has said dictators can use chemical weapons, killing thousands, and we will do nothing."

Following an eight-hour debate in the Commons, 31 Conservative MPs rebelled against the Government, including Dr Wollaston and Anne Marie Morris, who represents Newton Abbot.

Nine Liberal Democrats, too, voted against the party and helped inflict defeat on MrCameron and Nick Clegg, including Andrew George (St Ives) and Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall).

Mr Cameron was yesterday attempting to recover from the humiliation, which weakens his leadership but is unlikely to topple him.

The last time a Prime Minister was defeated over an issue of war and peace was in 1782. There were shouts of "resign" from the Labour benches as the result – 285 votes to 272 – was announced to a shocked House of Commons.

On Thursday night the Prime Minister said it was clear Parliament "does not want to see British military action" – "I get that," he told MPs – but he yesterday repeated his call for a "robust response" to the Syria crisis.

Speaking in Downing Street, he said it was a "regret" that he had been unable to build a consensus on the response to the atrocity in Syria.

Labour leader Ed Miliband's refusal to support the Government even after Mr Cameron made concessions over his approach to the issue has angered senior Downing Street figures. During the debate, Mr Cameron repeatedly attempted to distance the decision from Tony Blair's path to the conflict in Iraq in 2003 – saying he understood why it had "poisoned" the well of public opinion.

The result triggered warnings about the US-UK special relationship amid Lord Ashdown's claims that Britain has been left a "hugely diminished country".

The ex-special forces soldier said he felt "depressed and ashamed" that Britain was not to join military action despite the "utterly compelling" evidence Bashar Assad had gassed his own people. Lord Ashdown, who served as High Representative for Bosnia after long advocating military action in the region, said: "I think it diminishes our country hugely.

"We now have a bunch of people – the same ones who voted against this last night – who want to get out of Europe and have smashed our relationship with the United States.

"We should all understand who is cheering this morning: president Assad is cheering; president Putin is cheering; I suspect (UKIP leader) Mr Nigel Farage is cheering as he sees this country teetering on the edge of isolationism."

And Cornwall MP Mr Gilbert, a ministerial aide, who voted with the Government, said: "All Parliament did yesterday was diminish Britain and embolden those using chemical weapons against civilians."

Mr Bradshaw, a Cabinet minister in the Labour government, voted for Labour's alternative amendment, which wanted to wait for the UN weapons inspectors' report, and abstained on the Government's motion because "I felt Britain should keep our options open".

Writing on his blog, he launched a withering attack on Mr Cameron rushing back from his Cornwall holiday to "bounce MPs into supporting military action in principle before they or the country were ready".

He said: "If Cameron had supported Labour's sensible and measured amendment or waited until next week, the vote would have gone through. Instead, both leaders seem now to have ruled out supporting military action, regardless of what the weapons inspectors say and Presidents Obama, Hollande and others decide to do.

"This is an extraordinary moment for British foreign policy and, I'm inclined to agree with Paddy Ashdown, a worrying one. Britain has said dictators can use chemical weapons, killing thousands, and we will do nothing."

However, Dr Wollaston defended the actions of MPs opposing the Government motion, arguing Britain should not act as a "policeman" on the world stage.

Dr Wollaston said yesterday: "I think this was a good day for Parliament because this was Parliament reflecting the view, very widely held across the country, that we should not be drawn into yet another Middle Eastern conflict, that we are not the right people to deliver this message to Assad.

"It's not about us being a nation of appeasers or apologists, Britain isn't just turning its back, we are delivering enormous amounts of humanitarian aid but we just do not feel that humanitarian aid in this instance should come in the form of cruise missiles."

How West MPs voted on Syria in Commons

Five Westcountry MPs rebelled against Government orders to help defeat the Government over military action in Syria.In total, some 39 Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians rejected instructions to vote in favour “in principle” after illegal chemical weapons attacks on civilians. Those that sided with Labour included Tories Richard Drax (South Dorset), Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) and Sarah Wollaston (Totnes), and Lib Dems Andrew George (St Ives) and Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall).Mr Rogerson said he was “not convinced” remote missile strikes “will save any lives or improve the situation for Syrian people”. He added: “The use of chemical weapons, whether in war between countries or as here by a regime against its own people, is abhorrent to everyone.“Those responsible must face the full weight of international law as others have done, from Nazi war criminals through to those involved in the Balkan genocides.“The focus for British foreign policy now must be pursuing diplomatic routes as well as offering humanitarian aid in order to achieve a peaceful resolution as soon as possible.”Mr Rogerson, elected in 2005, supported a “defined objective” to remove Colonel Gaddafi in Libya – but intervention in Syria “will not help those at risk of persecution”. “I respect the views of those colleagues who decided that a response to the use of chemical weapons was the most important consideration, and I know that like me they did not vote they way they did lightly,” he added.Mrs Morris, elected in 2010, said: “The deployment of chemical weapons in Syria is abhorrent and has been rightly condemned. However, I believe military action should only be taken to defend the country and the national interest.“I do not believe taking military action against Syria meets this test. Indeed, military action offers no guarantee of success and an almost certain loss of life. I therefore decided to vote against the Government motion.”In the Commons on Thursday, Dr Wollaston said to be “wary of war is not to stand idly by” and Mr George warned limited strikes could result in “mission creep”.But other MPs defended their decision to back the Government. George Eustice, Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, said Parliament had “made a mistake”.He went on: “I can understand people’s reluctance to commit to military action given our experience in Iraq. However we must never allow our most recent conflict to cloud our judgement about current events.“The Prime Minister was clear that this would have been a very limited intervention designed solely to prevent the use of chemical weapons. Britain should not turn its back whilst atrocities like this are being committed and I believe Parliament made a mistake.”

YesTop row, from left: Jeremy Browne, Taunton Deane, Lib DemOliver Colvile, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport , ConsGeorge Eustice, Camborne and Redruth, ConsStephen Gilbert, St Austell and Newquay, Lib DemDavid Laws, Yeovil, Lib DemsOliver Letwin, West Dorset, ConsSecond row: Sheryll Murray, South East Cornwall, ConsSarah Newton, Truro and Falmouth, ConsNeil Parish, Tiverton and Honiton, ConsGary Streeter, South West Devon, ConsMel Stride, Central Devon, ConsHugo Swire, East Devon, Cons

NoFrom left: *Richard Drax, South Dorset, Cons*Andrew George, St Ives, Lib Dem*Anne Marie Morris, Newton Abbot, Cons*Dan Rogerson, North Cornwall, Lib DemAlison Seabeck, Plymouth Moor View, Lab*Dr Sarah Wollaston, Totnes, Cons* denotes rebelled against GovernmentDid not voteBen Bradshaw, Exeter, Lab (voted for Lab amendment, abstained Government motion). Geoffrey Cox, Torridge and West Devon, Cons (abroad). Nick Harvey, North Devon, Lib Dem (abroad). Ian Liddell-Grainger, Bridgwater, Cons. Adrian Sanders, Torbay, Lib Dem (paired with opposing MP)

Botched operation began when Cameron quit Cornwall early

What on earth was David Cameron thinking when he left the craggy coast on the north of the Duchy to prepare the ground to back a US-led bombing of Syria, asks Graeme Demianyk.

Two Westcountry MPs were unable to make the crucial Commons vote on Syria as they were marooned overseas.

Geoffrey Cox, Conservative MP for West Devon and Torridge, and one of the country's leading legal minds, was stranded in the Middle East with his family.

Likewise Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon and former Armed Forces Minister. He was in Greece, unable to return to Westminster in time when Parliament was abruptly recalled during recess.

That MPs – many of them – were unable to participate in a debate that could have led to lives being lost is testament to the botched operation that began life when the Prime Minister curtailed his own summer break in Cornwall.

What was David Cameron thinking when he left the craggy coast on the north of the Duchy to prepare the ground to back a US-led bombing of Syria? That backbench MPs would be equally revulsed by pictures and footage of civilians being gassed, it is alleged, at the hands of the Assad regime? They were. That they were as anxious as him to make good on the "special relationship" and make it clear to a bloody dictator that this will not be tolerated? They weren't. But hang on. While there was reticence, deep scepticism and downright opposition among MPs, the leaders of all three major parties either supported or would not rule out military action. Broadly speaking it was just the time-frames that were different.

So what went wrong?

It was very fashionable yesterday to drop "Tony Blair" and "Iraq" in conversation by way of explanation. And while no-one would dismiss out-of-hand the influence of the events of 2003 on the thinking of MPs and the public at large – the "dodgy dossier" and 45-minute claim notably – the ghosts of interventions past do not tell the full story.

That MPs were failing to book last-minute flights home is instructive too.

So too is the extraordinary fact that two Government ministers – International Development Secretary Justine Greening and Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds – failed to vote because they did not hear the bell that alerts MPs. Downing Street were furious that Labour, having won concessions over UN support and a second vote, decided to oppose the Government motion and put forward a very similar alternative amendment. It smacked of opportunism, coming after a poll indicating deep public unease, that Ed Miliband could yet regret. But it is a symptom of the same illness. David Cameron's operation was rushed, badly-managed and ill-judged. A little more patience – a vote on Monday when the House rises, say – may have got MPs back on British soil, ministers out of sound-proof rooms and Labour on side.

Cock-up has precipitated David Cameron's biggest crisis. It is one he might not recover from.

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