Syria intervention Commons debate as-it-happens

By Ian Dunt  and Alex Stevenson 


22:49 - I''ll bring this live blog to an end now. Here's the news story. I was going to have a day off tomorrow. Yeah, right. I'll be back setting up another live blog as we cover the aftershocks of today's vote.

22:45 - For the more immediate ramificiations, the vote also means Barakc Obama is alone in his Syria mission. It is inconcievable that Cameron would hold a second vote on actual engagement. For Cameron, this wil be the start of a very damaging period in qhich questions are raised about his judgement in allowing it to come to this.

22:42 - Well that was remarkable. For the first time in living memory parliament has brought the executive to a screeching halt on foreign policy. I'm not a decent enough politics geek for this, but I think perhaps the last time parliament exercised that type of power was in the years preceeding the English civil war. 

22:30 - The government has lost the motion on Syria by 272 votes to 285.

22:16 - The Labour motion is rejected by 332 votes by 220. That's close. Government whips will be sweating.

21:58 - "The choice between our motion and the opposition amendment is not one of real substance." He sits down. Bercow puts the questions. Division! MPs will now vote on Labour's amendment.

21:54 - "What kind of nation are we? Are we open or closed?" An Mp tells Clegg that if we're so attentive about this action, why not the Egyptian government's killing of demonstrators. Clegg says it's about chemical weapons. Another MP. Shots being fired from across the House. Will he rule out the use of British bases for any action without a vote to authorise it (ie Americans using them for bombing raids). Clegg says they've not recieved any requests. But he won't give the pledge exactly. "There's noting we're trying to hide from this House." Clegg is wrapping up. "We are not seeking to topple a dictator or flex our muscles. Voting for the government motion tonight however is sending a clear message. Iraq casts a long shadow, but it would a double tragedy if the memory of that war caused us to retreat from the laws and conventions which govern our world, which Britain helped to author."

21:51 - Now Clegg is asked if the motion authorises indirect action. Clegg says they are not considering it. "That is something we would consider and bring back". like a teacher he goes on: "These questions, legitimate as they are, suggest there is some suspicion in the House about the motion." Chants of yes. Clegg argues this is just about horror at the chemical attack. They have published evidence and legal advice, they have recalled parliament. He is holding his hands up to suggest they are doing everything Blair didn't on Iraq. "There is a danger we lose sight of the historical gravity of these events." Not a bad speech from Clegg.

21:50 - Oh God. Someone allowed Cheryl Gillan to speak again. She wants reassurances that this vote will not be used as a fig leave to allow British intervention. "I can be unequivocal, unambiguous: yes," Clegg replies. John Bercow, by the way, has had a cracking harcut.

21:47 - A Labour MP asks Clegg to disown the government briefings on Miliband giving "succour" to Assad. Clegg doesn't, but relies on a more wishy washy defence of everyone on the government bench supporting the free express of the debate. It is a nasty thing to accuse Miliband of. I was there when Downing Street said it and since then Phillip Hammond has been repeating it on TV. Grim and disreputable.

21:43 -Clegg is in consensual mode. He says he wants to talk about eescalation, evidence and legality. On escalation, he says the absence of action can lead to escalation too. He insists the government motion is very tightly defined (it isn't, whichever side of the debate you're on). "President Oabam's intentions are highly limited and so are ours," Clegg says. He moves onto evidence. He says it;s right there's scepticism. "Let's not let scepticism topple into outright suspicion of what are key persuasive facts." He cites the JIC, eyewitness accounts, logic and social media. iI is, ultimately persuaive. "That may not be sufficient for everyone but legitimate scepticism should not sweep those compelling facts under the carpet." 

21:42 -Clegg's up. He says we've seen the Commons at its very best. He must have been watching a different debate. Mine looked like one of those bits in BBC news when they ask people in the street what should be in the Budget. 

21:39 - He goes on to specify the time limited use of force under the Labour motion. Again, it is hard to see how different this motion is from the government's. What Alexander is specifying is pretty modest. "Punitive action would have no basis in international law," Alexander says.

21:37 -Alexander says Labour requires the evidence against Assad to be "compelling". He adds: "That threshold should be stated explicitly in the motion." He wants a commitment to a security council vote on the weapons inspectors report. "This matters because surely to exhaust and be seen to exhausted will be crucial in seeking the broadest support for any military action." Alexander effectively admitting is an act of theatre, given the certainty of a Russian and Chinese veto.

21:35 - Alexander says Labour wants multilateral efforts - a world order. "I freely acknowledge the limitations and past failures of the UN but it remains the indispensable institution of international law," he says. Alexander as eloquent and considered as usual. He has really grown into his shoes over the last three years. Is growing into shoes a phrase? I'm not entirely sure. Anyway.

21:32 - Miliband Harman and Douglas Alexander are back in the Commons. Alexander is summing up. Cameron and Hague are on the government bench. Here we go.Alexander starts with common ground, eexpressing his revulsion with the chemical attack.

21:26 -Former shadow attorney general Edwward Garnier, who I used to rather like until he watered down libel reform, says he'll back the government tonight but remains very sceptical. He;s not the first to say that. I presume the government will squeak through tonight, but I can't see how it would win a second vote.It;s remarkable but I think it may be impossible, according to electoral arithmatic, for the government to launch a strike against Syria.

21:22 - We've got confimration on that Jim Fitzpatrick resignation by the way. What's most remarkable isn't the resignation but that he could discern enough of a Labour policy to resign over. But apparently he thought it was still too open to war and stepped down from his junior ministerial brief.

21:17 - Outspoken Tory MP Sarah Wollaston is up. She says the nation is against the war and not because it is a nation of appeasers. "By agreeing to the legality of this position inevitably that sucks us closer to the cliff's edge [of unilateral intervention]." She says the west's constant interventions undermine the Arab League. We can;t destroy Assad's arsenal. We can only deliver a warning. "If not what on earth are we doing arming all these nations to the teeth. It is time for the Arab League to step up to the plate. Where was the world's policeman in 1985 when Iran was under sustained attack from chemical weapons. it suited the west to support Iraq." She attacks the US for use of white phosphorous. Why is the world's policeman selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia," she adds. This is an excellent, morally furious speech.

21:13 -Right. Sorry about that. Bit late. Back now.

20:45 - OK, I'm going to take a quick break. I need to recover from the shock of agreeing with Bone. Back at 9pm.

20:40 - Peter Bone just... hold on a minute. Peter Bone just made a point I agree with. This has never happened before. He points out how impressive it is that our parliament just held the executive to account. In the US, hundreds in Congress are begging for a debate and can't get one.

20:39 - I'm hearing that Jim Fitzpatrick has quit as a junior opposition transport spokesman over the vote.

20:33 - Bob Blackman, Conservative, evidently thinks he's in a Batman comic. He calls Assad an "evil dictator" and the rebels "inhuman". Having established that his world view is that of an over-excited twelve year old, he goes on to give us his views on the strategic ramifications of intervention.He calls Syria a satellite state of Russia, evidenctly unaware of what a satellite state actually is. As poor a speech as we've heard today.

20:29 - Pat McFadden is like Benjamin Button. I'm sure he gets smaller every time I see him. he pales next to that remarkable speech by Leigh. I disagreed with every word, but it was robust, principled, consistent and very well delivered. Best I've seen so far today.

20:21 - Clive Efford, Labour, is suggesting that the terminolgy used in these situations ('degrade', 'collatoral damage') tends to hide rather than reveal the truth. Edward Leigh, a Spitting Image puppet of himself, says there will be no second vote, because the parliamentary arithmatic doesn't stack up. "We were lied to in parliament and we're not going to go down that route again. I voted against Iraq and I'll vote against this. I'm told we're burying our heads in the sand. Are there anguished debates in other parliaments in Europe? No. Our contribution to such an attack would be infintessemal. We would simply be hanging on the coat tails of President Obama. He was foolish enough to ffer a red line. His credibility is on the line. We do not have follow him in this endeavour. Do we in the West eriously want Assad to lose power? Do we want him replaced by a regime that includes jihadists?"

20:14 - Andrew George, Lib Dem, sensible and pensive. He says even this watered-down motion "softens up"parliament. he says that even though he accepts it was probably the Assad regime, he still does not support intervention. If he was so irrational as to use chemical weapons he will be even more irrational when we attack. He gives way to the dashing David Ward. He says the action we need is criminal pursuit. MPs have had their time reduced to three minutes, so they're being generous when they give way. George looks like he regrets having done so for his Lib Dem colleague. 

20:11 - Meg Munn, Labour. She has a very depressing voice. She sounds like the precise moment you can't remember what the will to live felt like.

20:07 - Ben Gummer , Conservative, is up. He's like Hemmingway's Paris. Wherever he goes he takes the Oxford Debating Society with him. I shouldn't be too mean. He is at least mentally capable. That's almost as rare in Westminster as sex appeal. He argues that if Iraq influences our current debate it's a double calamity - we risk not intervening when we should because of when he shouldn't have. 

20:02 - Abbott says Assad probably launched those chemical strikes, but regardless of what she hears from Washinton or the JIC, she, er, doesn't believe it? Quite weird. She points out (validly) that the rebels had more to gain from this than Assad. "The question to ask is 'who benefits', 'who benefits'," she says, waving her hand around madly. She says the doctrine of humanitarian intervention has a tenuous basis in international law. She says Kosovo provides no legal precedent. "Were we to intervene militarily in Syria we would take ownership of that civil war."

20:00 - Opperman is supporting the motion. Ah Dianne 'might resign' Abbott is up. She says parliament has "stepped back from the brink of giving the prime minister carte blanche". A mixed metaphor, in the first line of a pre-written speech. 

19:53 - Guy Opperman, Conservative, shamelessly steals Cameron line of Iraq "poinsoning the well of public trust". Did he think we wouldn't notice? It only just happened. He is labouring a rather simple point as if he were going head to head withh Bertram Russell. He also, it's worth mentioning, has a haircut which wouldn't look out of place on the Inbetweeners. His cotribution is easily the best of the last half hour. It's almost at the level of a GCSE exam. 

19:47 - Gillen, by the way, seems extremely critica of the prospect of intervention, but seems reassured by the promise of a second Commons vote bfore engagement.Jim Fitzpatrick, Labour, looks like a rabbit trying to address Fermat's last theorem. He assures the Commons that he doesn't support Assad or Islamic fundamentalism. Well that's a relief. Madeleine Moon, rather more capable, points out to the House that the Arab League shies away from western intervention. 

19:39 - Cheryl Gillan, Conservative, is up. Howarth, through the mercy of God, was forced to stop talking by the time limit. Gillen looks like an enthusiastic biege curtain. She plays with her glasses as she talks, as if she would put them in her mouth in that irritating academic-superiority sort of way if she were not already using her mouth for speaking. She starts by telling MPs that she stopped to look at the archway above the entrance of parliament today, to remind herself that MPs have the power of life and death over their constituents. It sounds like she rather enjoyed the thought. I must say, the extent of the pomposity from MPs has reached almost unprecedented levels today. Not to mention cliche. How many sinews have been strained and slopes slipped already? God help us, but there'll be more to come before the vote at 10pm.

19:33 - George Howarth, Labour, is talking. He has the body of a child and the face of a man. He's like Tom Hanks in Big. More importantly, Nick Clegg is wearig glasses, which I have never seen before, and I have spent a depressingly long period of my life watching Nick Clegg. Professionally, you understand. It's not a weird thing. Howarth says that at the end "it comes down to judgement... each of us has to form a judgement". He clearly thinks he;s a philosopher king. In a moment he'll be introduced to his party whip and that question of judgement may take on a more subdued role.

19:30 - Hello again. Ian here. Quite exhausted and toying with drinking wine as the debate continues. Anyway. Let me get caught up and I'll kick off the type of stylish, mildly abusive political analysis you've come to expect.

19:25 - I'm going to wander the corridors of parliament now while Ian takes you through to the close...

19:21 - Talk of a weekend sitting is now developing quickly. It happened in the Falklands but I'm not sure it has since. And yet here we are, with colleagues reporting it is looking horribly plausible.

19:19 - If there was one party you'd expect to support a military intervention it's the Democratic Unionist party, which has in the past always jumped to support action. Not this time. Jeffrey Donaldson, the MP for Lagan Valley, says he's not convinced. "We cannot control, and we've learned this from Iraq and Libya, we cannot control the outcome."

19:18 - Brooks Newmark, who knows the Syrian regime like the back of his hand, is deeply suspicious of them. "I would rather believe our government and intelligence agencies than Russia and Assad," he says. He allows an intervention from Bob Stewart, who tells the House he was a chemical officer of sorts while in the military. "It's only a professional army, and that's not the rebels, that could use chemical weapons."

19:07 - Kate Hoey's speech is bound to be troublemaking, and so it proves. But she raises a group who have not been mentioned much, oddly: "the Syrian people". Hoey says she hasn't heard anything which would suggest they'd be better off if military action takes place.

19:00: After David Lammy gets the prize for best introduction to a speech (it was about rushing to turn the tele off when a news report about Syria came on. to protect a Lammy Junior) we come to Lib Dem Lorely Burt. She fears the "further Balkanisation of the Middle East", because a military move would give "them" the "opportunity to make mischief and blame western imperialism". There are now just three hours of debate left...

18:49 - "There are so many questions," Baron continues, his voice getting dangerously high-pitched. It's something I've noticed repeatedly when people start getting carried away about the dangers of intervention - or not intervening, for that matter. "Very few answers - we need more answers," he squeaks. He doesn't like this one bit. "We need to base it on firm evidence, NOT speculation." 

18:46 - In the Commons chamber it's John Baron who's next. He has never been one to jump to the prime minister's defence and has been thoroughly sceptical, in a very high profile way, over the last 48 hours or so. His speech initially starts with a worry about "careful consideration of the evidence".

18:43 - Meanwhile, former Lib Dem minister Sarah Teather, who is facing a tough fight in her London constituency of Brent East, has put out a lengthy press release - more of a draft speech, if you ask me - explaining why she will oppose the government motion tonight. One of its many paras is the following:

In our understandable desire to do something in the face of such appalling atrocities we are in danger of arriving at a contradictory position: attempting to uphold international law by flouting international law ourselves and attempting to make a statement about our disapproval of violence by perpetrating further violence.

18:36 - It sounds a lot like Carswell is going to rebel and vote for Labour, but he also seems to be saying he hasn't made up his mind. He's followed by Dai Havard, who is not at all sure what a 'targeted' attack means. "Targeted in the sense you know why you're going to throw the missile?" he scoffs. That is the tone of his entire speech. He's just not buying it!

18:31 - Bernard Jenkin says something faintly unbelievable: if we don't trust Cameron to make decisions on this sort of thing, we shouldn't have trusted him to be prime minister. An astonishing statement, especially given that Cameron earlier was at pains to stress that this is a "judgement" and one everyone in parliament should be able to take on the evidence available to them. He's speaking in response to Douglas Carswell, who says he is "deeply unconvinced by what missile strikes and bombings would achieve".

18:28 - I tune back in just as Crispin Blunt wraps up. "I can't support it," he concludes. Ne-ext! And next is Labour's Mark Hendrick, the Eeyore of Preston. His speech is summed up by the phrase "the situation kicks off" - which is exactly what he fears will be the regional knock-on result of western intervention.

18:21 - Right. I am back. My name is Alex Stevenson. I am a political journalist. And I am now going to resume reporting on a seven-and-a-half hour debate which, to be fair, is critical and almost worth using the word 'historical'.about.

17:58 - I'm about to lose consciousness so it's time for a quick break.

17:54 - Richard Graham, the Tory backbencher, points out all today's motion does is not rule out military action. But Sir Malcolm Bruce, who is speaking now, wants to know how the action will take place in a way that doesn't make the situation worse. "We've been asked to make a decision because the American government has made a decision." Was Obama "naive", or was it a "challenge"? He makes a decent point. The west only faces this dilemma because of that Obama red line. But then, there is a reason this is a red line, after all. Chemical weapons are chemical weapons.

17:53 - Ian has been doing some more of that writing thing he does, having been in the Commons chamber for the main exchanges earlier. He was not impressed by Ed Miliband, it's fair to say. He writes: 

In matters of war and peace, a sombre attitude and a patient temperament are standards of quality. Miliband is to be commended for aspiring toward them.

But in this case, where the reality is so stark and the moral and practical costs of inaction so grim his reluctance to accept a government compromise seemed increasingly cynical.

17:48 - Caroline Lucas, who is NOT repeat NOT the Green party leader, is delivering her usual brand of concerned, considered despair. She tabled her own amendment suggesting the case for military action has not been made, and laments the fact it's not going to be put to a vote. "We need to strain every sinew," she says. This is becoming a thing in our office. Lots of sinews being strained today.

17:42 - Kevin Brennan raises a point of order. He says there are rumours circulating that No 10 is not ruling out a further recall of parliament on Saturday or Sunday. Has the Speaker heard anything about this? Bercow says the first he'd heard of it is from Brennan's lips. He doesn't let this sudden and acute threat to his weekend disturb his weekend in the slightest.

17:33 - Mercifully, the Speaker brings McDonnell's droneathon to an end and we're relieved by the flair and panache - ahem - of John Redwood. "We don't know the language," he points out, talking about Syria. This is posited as a genuine reason for not going to war.

17:29 - Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP leader, is next. He has very little to say, but just hopes whatever happens it dosen't make the situation worse.

17:26 - Andrew Mitchell - still on the backbenches - is attracting groans from my colleagues in the press gallery for his use of the word "sinews". He complains that the current aid situation is damaging those fleeing from rebel-held areas, and helping those who flee from regime-held areas. And finally he gets to the current situation. He is staunchly in favour of intervention. A lot of that speech was all about reminding MPs he used to be international development secretary.

17:19 - Wrapping up, he tells Tory MPs: "Who are you to decide that you will launch a war?" He defends the Russian and Chinese veto, but says the US has "vetoed every attempt to obtain justice for the Palestinian people!" That's a first mention in this debate for the Palestinians there. After a brief intervention that doesn't go anywhere, Galloway starts to falter. He's running out of steam, and is now being laughed at. "I know mine is where I gave you such a bloody good hiding!" he declares. Inexplicably, John Bercow doesn't intervene.

17:16 - Assad, Galloway says, had been hailed as a moderniser, but the "narrative has changed" and he now believes the government "is intent on regime change". Galloway is shouting now as he gets into some gory detail - Youtube videos of hearts being eaten and heads being sawn off. The shock factor is coming in fast now. "It's been the government's policy for two years to bring about the defeat of the regime in Damascus," he continues.

17:14 - Time for a rare Commons appearance from George Galloway, who says the huge public "revolt" against the war has prompted the government climbdown. Any claim otherwise by the PM, he says, is "bunkum". Spitting out the word 'bunkum', there. He says an Independent poll shows just 11% support the war. He's questioning the logic of Assad regime launching a chemical weapons attack. They're definitely "bad enough to do it", but are they "mad enough to do it"? he asks. "How mad is he going to be once we launch a blizzard of missiles against his country?"

17:11 - Davis is sceptical about the reliability of "If you're going to do things that will lead to people's deaths, you need to get your facts right." 

17:06 - David Davis is next. The "clear moral imperative" of action in Libya "does not stand today", he says. No holding back his punchline to the end, that's for sure.

17:04 - Big Ben is bonging five times as Gerald Kaufman, one of the left's most experienced voices in the Commons, delivers his speech. You don't even need to know who he's talking about to get a flavour for it all: "They do what they want to and they name all kinds of excuses to justify random murdererous activity which doesn't even cure the situation." Believe it or not, this was a man who was once shadow foreign secretary. And that's history, folks.

16:58 - Stop The War have put out a useful little leaflet outlining exactly why they think it would not be a good idea to... well, to start the war. Some reasons are a little more persuasive than others...

16:55 - Julian Lewis, the Tory MP, tells those listening that Adolf Hitler didn't use poison gas when fighting against the Allies because he feared they would retaliate in kind. His questions are: is it proven "beyond reasonable doubt" that Assad did it? And is a military strike therefore sensible? Those are indeed the questions, yes... Lewis says the JIC is "baffled" over the motive question - surely it was "the height of irrationality" for him to do it and risk an intervention by the west. That prompts an intervention from fellow Tory Bernard Jenkin, who suggests Assad was "getting desperate, that's why he used it". Lewis says "that would make more sense if he actually was willing to acknowledge he was testing the water".

16:46 - Elfyn Llwyd, the Plaid Cymru chief in Westminster, is standing up and speaking out against any intervention. Yet another mention of Iraq. This is just going to be never-ending, isn't it?

16:43 - Arbuthnot, who is the wrong side of... 55?, calls himself a "silly young thing". "In order to stop the use of chemical weapons becoming the norm, the world does need to act," he adds, back in serious mode.

16:38 - James Arbuthnot, the defence committee chair, repeats again that he hasn't made up his mind. This is strange, because earlier his language had suggested he had changed his mind to back the government (see 14:45). His constituents "hate the idea" of military action, but he is aware that something needs to be done.

16:33 - John McDonnell, Stop The War champion, is grateful to Miliband for blocking the gung-ho rush to conflict which we were looking at this time yesterday. He's not sure why a "sovereign, independent nation" like Britain should fall into line with the US on the need for intervention.

16:30 - And here's another little bit of reading material: a piece by Steven Akehurst on the need for intervention two years ago, let alone right now. His general view is 'better late than never'...

To put it mildly, Nato power and influence is a less than ideal instrument through which to achieve progressive ends. But it's simply not true, as those on the far left contend, that its every move is always and only reducible to an act of imperialism.

16:28 - Ian has filed a quick story on that little spat in the press gallery: Labour and the Tories go to war behind the scenes as Commons debate rages

16:26 - Richard Ottaway, chair of the Commons' foreign affairs committee, says: "There is a straw that breaks the camel's back and to me this is it." He says it's a question of credibility, anyway: we can either behave like a minor nation or one "with international responsibilities".

16:24 - Ming wraps up by confirming that he's going to vote for the government motion rather than Miliband's on the basis that he can't see any real difference between them. Then comes the SNP leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson, who says the UK government shouldn't have a "blank cheque" for military intervention. "We cannot ignore the lessons of the calamitous Iraq War," he declares, calling for "safeguards" and a "coherent and comprehensive strategy".

16:17 - Tessa Jowell takes five minutes to say the "situation is parlous", before being cut off and Sir Menzies Campbell takes the floor. He has "reservations", he says. Ming talks about "emotion" - it's "no substitute for judgement", he says. The medium and long-term have to be thought about too, he says. But he can't offer any detailed assessment of the prospects for success just yet. The St Petersburg G20 summit next week won't see the 'responsibility to protect' doctrine getting much support, he says.

16:08 - Just stepping away from the debate for a moment, now, as Ian Dunt has come back down the corridor from the press gallery where it sounds like it's all kicking off. An aide to the PM said "Miliband was flipping and flopping and unable to make up his mind". This didn't go down well with Ed Miliband's spokesperson, who responded by saying the comment was "uncalled for", "demeaning to the debate" and "frankly insulting". He added that "No 10 should not reduce itself to the level of personal abuse" and also said the suggestion that Miliband had offered his support yesterday is "categorically untrue." In short, Ian Dunt says, he's accusing Downing Street of lying.

16:02 - Former defence secretary Liam Fox doesn't sound like he's going to be supporting the government later. His point is all about public support for any military action: in particular, that there isn't any. "The pictures of toddlers laid out in robes was (he meant were) deeply disturbing," he says. 

15:58 - Straw is now being heckled by Labour MPs sitting around him. He's told it was a "political failure", not an intelligence one, by Tory Richard Bacon. Straw replies by saying "I accept my responsibilities fully" and simply tries to make the point that one of the consequences has been to "raise the bar we have to get over" when intelligence matters arise. Paul Flynn, the feistiest pensioner in the Commons, links Iraq with Afghanistan. Straw says the "bigger question" is the strategic objective of any military action. He's being thoroughly sceptical.

15:53 - Jack Straw is next. He begins by reminding MPs that he was the final speaker in the March 18th 2003 debate. Back then, he says, there was an "egregious intelligence failure and that has had profound consequences". MPs are listening to this one carefully. He laments the "fraying of trust between the electors and the elected". It has made the public "much more questioning". 

15:52 - Rather alarmingly, he compares the damage of inaction to the inaction which took place against fascist Italy's invasion of Abyssinia in the 1930s by Nazi Germany. Not the clearest of comparisons, really, but MPs like what they're hearing.

15:47 - Rifkind's argument is that "beyond reasonable doubt" should do just fine when it comes to the evidence. A murder conviction can take place without someone seeing the trigger being pulled.

15:45 - Speaker John Bercow tells MPs not to bug him, because there are 99 backbenchers trying to speak and he's busy up to here right now. After a point of order, it's time for the first backbencher: former defence secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, now the chair of the intelligence committee. That's NOT the one which has come up with the intelligence assessment, by the way.

15:44 - "This is a very grave decision and it should be treated as such by this House... can the international community act in a lawful and legitimate way? The seriousness of our deliberations should support the urgency of the matters we face." He finishes up, and gets a very partisan cheer from Labour.

15:43 - Penny Mordaunt, who I spoke to yesterday and made clear she wasn't sure whether the governmetn motion would pass muster, is extremely keen on it now. She presses Miliband to back the government, and of course he refuses to do so. Now he's finishing up.

15:41 - Miliband: "I do not rule out supporting the prime minister, but he has to make a better case to the country." He then makes the case for his amendment, which is packed to the brim with handy checklists of stuff to be achieved. "I believe it captures a shared view on all sides of this House both about the anger of the attack on innocent civilians but also a coherent framework... about how we respond."

15:38 - Cameron loyalist Nadhim Zahawi accuses Miliband of pursuing party advantage - something lots of Tories are thinking right now but few are prepared to say. "WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE NATIONAL INTEREST??" Zahawi yells over disapproval from the Labour benches. Miliband is frosty in reply. "That intervention is not worthy of the honourable gentleman," he huffs. Miss Piggy would be proud.

15:36 - Douglas Alexander looks just a little bit blandly unimpressed with Miliband as he struggles with a question from a Tory backbencher asking what exact "precise" objectives Labour would be seeking to achieve. 

15:32 - Cameron intervenes, unusually, as Miliband is working his way through those three conditions needed for military action without UN approval to be legal. The PM points out the attorney-general's view that  "All three conditions would clearly be met in this case."Miliband's voice goes all high-pitched as he insists that has to be tested, and the A-G's view isn't final.

15:29 - The UN security council should vote on action, Miliband is now saying. He deplores the phrase a "United Nations moment" but raises it in his speech anyway. When pressed by Lib Dem silk glove/iron fist Martin Horwood whether or not the evidence Cameron's provided is sufficient, Miliband says the JIC evidence is "important" but that more is needed.

15:25 - Miliband is fighting yesterday's battle, explaining why the UN inspectors' evidence has to come before the decision to act. Originally, of course, Cameron wanted today to be about making that decision.

15:24 - Ed Miliband stands up to reply. His tone is speaking-slowly-and-solemnly. His first big point is that nobody "should be under any illusions" about what an intervention would mean about Britain's involvement in Syria. The record then gets stuck as he falters. His argument is tricky to follow, but the "sequential roadmap" he wants is clear enough. "This is fundamental to the principles of Britain: a belief in the rule of law, a belief that any miltiary action we take must be justified not just in terms of the cause but also in terms of the consequences." What does the latter mean? 

15:21 - Here's the Cameron speech in a nutshell:

  • Chemical weapons have to be responded to
  • This isn't like Iraq
  • Intelligence is not that big a deal. We can't prove it 100%, but it's pretty obvious it was Assad and MPs should make that judgement for themselves.

15:20 - Sounds like he's wrapping up now. "We must ercognise the scepticism and concerns that many in the country will have after Iraq, explaining... all the ways in which this situation is very different. We must ensure any action is proportionate, legal and specifically designed to deter the use of chemical weapons... we must not let the spectre of pervious mistakes paralyse our ability to stand up for what is right. we must not be so afraid of doing anything that we end up doing nothing... Britain should not stand aside. We should play our part in a strong international response."

15:17 - What about the counter-terrorism response? The assessment, Cameron tells MPs, is that "there would not be a significant cause of radicalisation and extremism". The PM argues there are many Muslims in Britain who would welcome the UK coming to the support of Muslims in Syria.

15:16 - Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes, who is predictably heckled once again, is mocked for using the phrase "give peace a chance". Cameron says he's been chit-chatting with Putin about the issue. Not that talking is getting them very far.

15:15 - John Baron, who Cameron acknowledges as a mortal foe on Syria policy (not quite in those words) is worried about regional escalation. The PM holds firmly to chemical weapons once again - effectively refusing to consider the potential implications for the Middle East. Shortly afterwards Keith Vaz raises his pet concern in the region, Yemen. Here Cameron does engage a bit more, as this happens to be what's next in his speech. He argues that standing aside will only make things worse.

15:11 - Intelligence shouldn't be raised to a "quasi-religious cult", Cameron says. His suggestion is it's all out there - "open source" intelligence - anyway, so there isn't "one smoking piece of intelligence that is going to solve the whole problem".

15:09 - Next is Jack Straw, who gets a thoroughly hostile reception from MPs for his involvement in the 2003 invasion as the PM struggles to work out what to call him. His point is to ask what Cameron's objective would be in seeking to degrade chemical weapons in Syria. (Straw says he's just the MP for Blackburn, but Cameron suggests the best option would be to call him his constituent). The PM's serious answer returns once again to the now-steadily-forming truth that "these are judgement issues".

15:07 - Cameron has moved on to the legal advice, and makes clear it says that action even without UN approval would be legal. Well, it would be if those important three conditions are met: extreme humanitarian disterss on a large scale, no practicable alternative, and the necessary and proportionate use of force. As someone told me, this is all pretty subjective stuff.

15:04 - Intervening, Cameron says, is always tricky, but "by any standard this is a humanitarian catastrophe". The chemical weapons attack, though brutal, is not necessarily in that scale. The PM makes a stronger point when he warns the "taboo" on chemical weapons will be breached if this action is permitted.

15:03 - Robert Halfon falls over himself to praise the prime minister. He's very keen on intervention, and Cameron is very happy to get support from him. 

15:00 - And here's the immediate comeback, from Peter Bone. He wonders why on earth Assad has been doing it. "He's been testing the boundaries," Cameron replies. This is all rather tentative, and really unfounded, as Cameron realises. "We can't know the mind of this brutal dictator."

14:58 - A very important quote here:

In the end there is no 100% certainty about who is responsible.

In short, they can't prove it absolutely. But they hope MPs will agree the evidence they do have is sufficient.

14:56 - Some emotive language from the prime minister now. "You can never forget the sight of children's bodies stored in ice," he says, urging MPs to go and look at the video footage. The conclusion of the joint intelligence committee, he says, is clear, quoting the letter (we've got its highlights below). He calls the JIC 'Jic', as in 'Jif'. Cameron's tone is all about saying 'I'm not Blair' - it's not about saying 'I've seen something and I'm right and you're wrong'.  "This is a judgement, I would put it to you that from all the evidence we have...  that is enough to conclude the regime is responsible and should be held accountable."

14:51 - Next is Daniel Kawczynski, the Libya expert, who wants to know why allies in the Middle East can't take military action themselves. "No decision has been taken," Cameron says. His response is basically that they can't be trusted to take the action in the way we want. Sir Tony Baldry, the godly Tory MP for Banbury raises 'responsibility to protect', a key UN doctrine. Cameron agrees, but keeps his focus firmly on chemical weapons. That's now emerging as a very clear strategy.

14:49 - Julian Brazier, true blue Tory from Canterbury, wants to know more detail about the UN. Cameron says "overwhelming opposition in the security council" would prevent any action. That isn't the question at stake, though. What about a tepid majority - say, 8-2 with a cluster of abstentions?

14:48 - "In no way does the opposition motion even begin to point the finger of blame at President Assad," Cameron complains. Parliament is divided, and the PM doesn't like it one bit.

14:47 - Cameron provides a lengthy vignette about his memory of listening to Tony Blair, sitting on the opposition backbenches in 2003. Then comes Dame Joan Ruddock, who suggests parliament was recalled because of the possibility of action sooner rather than later. Cameron, who promises to answer her question directly, dodges it completely. He does say there will be "no action until we've heard from the UN weapons inspectors". That was not the message earlier this week.

14:45 - James Arbuthnot, the defence committee chair, provides a very welcome 'I've changed my mind' intervention, which the PM is very grateful for. Next, Cameron moves on to size up Barack Obama. Cameron cites the "red line" argument and says Britain shared his view. "I also explained, let me make this clear, that because of the damage done to public confidence by Iraq we would have to follow a series of incremental steps... to ensure maximum possible legitimacy for international action."

14:43 - Second point is about Iraq. This isn't like that, he insists. And he explains why in detail. The chemical weapons exist, and the attack took place too. "We have multiple eyewitness accounts of chemical-filled rockets being used against opposition controlled areas," the prime minister says. "The differences with 2003 and the situation and Iraq go wider," he insists. Europe, Nato and the Arab League are all united now where they were not before.

14:41 - Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, wants to know why there hasn't been the full legal advice published. Cameron says this government has done far more in releasing even a summary than its predecessors. He promises to take a "huge number" of interventions. Crikey.

14:39 - Cameron insists this isn't about "taking sides" in the Syrian conflict - focusing from the outset on chemical weapons. That gets his first 'hear hear' from MPs.

14:37 - Right, we're now kicking off. The Commons chamber is utterly and completely packed to the brim. Speaker John Bercow says the Labour amendment has been selected, as expected. And here's David Cameron to make the government's case.

14:24 - So we're nearly there. The usual small crowd has gathered to watch the Speaker traipse through parliament's central lobby. And I am telling you to spend the last few minutes before the debate reading my preview of the debate for Prospect...

14:19 - I had just started taking down the views of Diane Abbott ("It's David Cameron who's been exposed as weak") and Tory rebel Sarah Wollaston ("there's a real risk of escalation") on the BBC News Channel when I realised we can look forward to hearing the views of MPs for the next seven-and-a-half hours. This prompted a rather sudden and drastic reduction in my note-taking enthusiasm. Instead, this insight:



14:13 - Labour is playing a careful game today. The opposition waited until the last minute to table their amendment; so much so that a parliamentary paper-pusher (they are important people, have no doubt) wondered to me whether or not they had actually missed the critical Speaker's conference at which John Bercow selects which amendments are to be debated. I rang up the opposition whips' office and they assured me it had gone in on time. They also sounded rather stressed, but then I suppose that's par for the course on a day like today.

14:07 - The Commons' debate gets underway in less than half an hour now - and MPs are being told that there is a five-minute limit on backbench speeches. On the one hand, this is a good thing: less is always more in the Commons chamber. On the other hand, I am going to have to be paying attention to 12 points of view per hour. Egad!

14:03 - Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office minister, has just been speaking to Sky News. Here's what he had to say:

The motion reflects the concerns of the prime minister to listen to people, to have learned the lessons of Iraq and give confidence to people about the way we are going about this very difficult issue.

He also played up the credibility issue as being a key reason for the west to step up and respond directly to the use of chemical weapons. This is a view backed by Lord Hannay. "It's not just about Syria," he told me. "It's about Iran, North Korea, all the countries who don't have our best interests at heart."

13:53 - I've been speaking to Lord Hannay, the former British ambassador to the United Nations, for his view on whether or not the government's efforts to win over the security council will work out. "It's wishful thinking. I think it will hit the wall," he says. The Russians and Chinese are so nervous about the prospect of western intervention they even vetoed the relatively harmless Annan peace plan. They're not about to back any kind of military action, that's for sure.

The question then becomes one of building up a 'coalition of willing', for which a 13-2 vote would be the best option. Hannay is sceptical about the achievability of even that limited goal, too. "There may be quite a lot of abstentions from non-permanent security council members," he suggests, because of their reluctance to vote through a resolution which authorises the use of force. "It's a great deal easier to vote in favour of a peace plan than a military plan."

13:42 - An interesting set of polling figures on the Liberal Democrat party's views on Syria, courtesy of the blog LibDemVoice. Its poll saw a quarter opposed to any kind of intervention, and just seven per cent in support. But 62% backed the 'yes, BUT' option which requires three caveats.

1 - compelling evidence of chemical weapon use by the Assad regime (the joint intelligence committee should take care of that)

2 - parliamentary approval (we can expect that, probably, later)

3 - support by the UN security council (this one is going to be tricky). The question then becomes what form that security council endorsement takes...

13:36 - It's now being reported that Labour will vote against the government's motion. They were heading that way for a while but it makes sense that they've now come out and stated it. It's the same old equation, isn't it? On issues where there's a chance the Tories might be defeated because of backbench rebellions from within their own party, come up with a reason to oppose the government and watch the mayhem unfold.

13:32 - Here's a thought from the joint intelligence committee assessment. The lack of a time limit over which evidence of chemical weapons would have "degraded beyond usefulness", in the final paragraph, is rather odd. It clashes with the messaging from the UK government earlier this week. On Tuesday the prime minister's spokesperson said: "There is a concern the fact the regime did not allow the UN team in on day one suggests their evidence could have been tampered with." Under pressure to get a deal based solely on the joint intelligence assessment now published, that seems unlikely. Maybe the final sentence of the assessment could do with a bit more clarifying: "The longer it takes inspectors to gain access to the affected sites, the more difficult it will be to establish the chain of evidence beyond reasonable doubt."

13:26 - Hello, this is Alex taking over from Ian for the main blog for a bit. This is something of a relief for me as it means I get to sit down and do some typing rather than running like a maniac through the corridors of the Palace of Westminster.

It's not just the Tories who are meeting this lunchtime. Ed Miliband is speaking to Labour MPs on the committee corridor and the Liberal Democrats are just down the way, too. I sense a bit of choreographing here with the publication of the joint intelligence committee assessment. Earlier today No 10 said they weren't going to budge at all on it, but now the JIC's report (see below) has come out just as MPs meet. It's clear what has happened: this is a card for the prime minister to play as he reveals the news to MPs. Something to catch their attention, that's for sure.


13:21 - OK, I'm popping off for a bit, but will leave you in the capable hands of Alex Stevenson. I'll be back later on.

13:09 - And here's a quick summary of the legal advice, if you can't be bothered to read it:

You can intervene if:

1) The international community as a whole accepts "humanitarian distress on a large scale".  The government will satisfy this criteria by pointing to the regimes pattern of use of chemical weapons and evidence that is it responsible for last week's attack
2) It's clear there's no practicable alternative. The government will satisfy this criteria by showing that previous efforts to get UN movement on the issue were blocked, and that any effort which takes place now will also be blocked.
3) Force is "necessary and proportionate" to the aim of relief of humanitarian need. The government will satisfy this criteria by only striking specific targets with the aim of "deterring and disrupting" such attacks.

12:49 - You can also read the joint intelligence committee's report into the evidence of Assad's responsibility for the chemical attack. It's here but is quite long so I've reprinted the key extracts below:

Syrian regime used lethal CW on 14 occasions from 2012. A clear pattern of regime use has therefore been established. Unlike previous attacks, the degree of open source reporting of CW use on 21 August has been considerable. As a result, there is little serious dispute that chemical attacks causing mass casualties took place. There is no credible intelligence or other  evidence to substantiate the claims [that rebel forces conducted the attack] or the possession of CW by the opposition. The JIC has therefore concluded that there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility. Against that background, the JIC concluded that it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for the CW attacks on 21 August.

12:45 - The legal advice to the argument has been published. You can read it here but I'll post it in full below:

This note sets out the UK government’s position regarding the legality of military action in Syria following the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Damascus on 21 August 2013.

The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is a serious crime of international concern, as a breach of the customary international law prohibition on use of chemical weapons, and amounts to a war crime and a crime against humanity. However, the legal basis for military action would be humanitarian intervention; the aim is to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons.

The UK is seeking a resolution of the United Nations Security Council under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations which would condemn the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian authorities; demand that the Syrian authorities strictly observe their obligations under international law and previous Security Council resolutions, including ceasing all use of chemical weapons; and authorise member states, among other things, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians in Syria from the use of chemical weapons and prevent any future use of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons; and refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

If action in the Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, provided three conditions are met:

(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;

(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and

(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).

All three conditions would clearly be met in this case:
(i) The Syrian regime has been killing its people for two years, with reported deaths now over 100,000 and refugees at nearly 2 million. The large-scale use of chemical weapons by the regime in a heavily populated area on 21 August 2013 is a war crime and perhaps the most egregious single incident of the conflict. Given the Syrian regime’s pattern of use of chemical weapons over several months, it is likely that the regime will seek to use such weapons again. It is also likely to continue frustrating the efforts of the United Nations to establish exactly what has happened. Renewed attacks using chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would cause further suffering and loss of civilian lives, and would lead to displacement of the civilian population on a large scale and in hostile conditions.

(ii) Previous attempts by the UK and its international partners to secure a resolution of this conflict, end its associated humanitarian suffering and prevent the use of chemical weapons through meaningful action by the Security Council have been blocked over the last two years. If action in the Security Council is blocked again, no practicable alternative would remain to the use of force to deter and degrade the capacity for the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.

(iii) In these circumstances, and as an exceptional measure on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity, military intervention to strike specific targets with the aim of deterring and disrupting further such attacks would be necessary and proportionate and therefore legally justifiable. Such an intervention would be directed exclusively to averting a humanitarian catastrophe, and the minimum judged necessary for that purpose.

12:16 - There was banging on the tables when Cameron went to talk at the Conservative parliamentary party, journalists outside have reported. I wouldn't read too much into it. This bit of theatre is followed pretty much everytime the parliamentary party knows journos are listening outside.

Reuters just reported that Syrian state TV says Assad has pledged the country will "defend itself against any aggression".

11:59 - Alex Stevenson:

The Conservative parliamentary party is meeting right now. After all the usual "nice summer?" small talk they will now be addressing the case for action - and the need for restraint. There's a bit of an irony in operation here. Had Ed Miliband not played hardball yesterday evening this would be a meeting dominated by divisions, with the Tory party split over whether or not to support their leader. Now, with Labour pushing hard to force as many concessions as they can, the mood will be different. The disagreements will still be there but they will be muted and many waverers will be won over by the Labour threat.


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