MPs Plot Commons Vote On Arming Syrian Rebels Before Summer Recess

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SYRIA REBELS
MPs are suspicious the government will try and bounce them into arming the rebels | Getty

MPs are hoping to force the government to allow parliament to block any decision to arm the Syrian rebels, amid concerns Downing Street is trying to "sideline" the Commons.

A cross-party group of MPs led by Tory John Baron and supported by former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell and former Labour cabinet minister Peter Hain have petitioned the backbench business committee for a debate to be held before 18 July - the summer recess.

The committee has one three hour slot before then in which it can schedule debates in the Commons chamber. Under the plan MPs would be asked to debate and then vote on the following motion:

"This House believes no lethal support should be provided to anti-government forces in Syria without the explicit prior consent of parliament."

It appears highly unlikely the government could win a Commons vote as Labour, the Lib Dems as well as a substantial number of Tory backbenchers oppose military intervention. David Cameron would find it even harder to deny MPs the right to give prior approval to any arms shipments if parliament had also voted to demand they be given one.

William Hague has insisted the Commons would be given a vote before any arms were delivered.

But such is the depth of suspicion on the backbenches that MPs have argued Cameron himself has previously only said the Commons would have "a say".

Baron said the intention was for parliament to be seen to be "laying down a marker" that there could be no lethal support given to the anti-Assad forces without the approval of MPs.

"Parliament generally, if one looks back, has often arrived at situations too late. On Iraq for example we held the debate as troops were on the start line. Colleagues felt obliged to support the troops and therefore support the invasion of despite having qualms," he said. "On Libya we took that decision practically as the jets were leaving the runways."

He added: "This debate is about putting a marker in the sand to make sure we don't get bounced into any sort of decision."

Richard Ottaway, the Conservative chairman of the foreign affairs committee, has submitted a rival petition to the committee for a general debate to be held before the recess, which states:

"This House supports the efforts of the UK and international partners to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria and takes note of the EU Council decision 31 March 2013 concerning restrictive measures against Syria [the ending of the arms embargo]."

However many MPs are worried that such a broad debate without a specific vote could actually help the government deliver weapons to the Opposition without parliament's consent - as it would enable ministers to claim parliament had in fact been given "a say".

Labour's Jeremy Corbyn said there was a feeling in Westminster that "parliament is being sidelined" over Syria. "Parliament has a right and a duty to be involved, the public would not understand if there was not a proper parliamentary debate and vote," he said.

The MPs have the support of John Bercow, who said last month it would be "undemocratic and inappropriate" for any weapons to be delivered to Syria without the consent of MPs.

One solution to the competing amendments would be that the narrow Baron motion be adopted as an amendment to the broader Ottaway motion. The two are due to meet on Tuesday afternoon in an attempt to thrash out a deal.

It is highly likely there will be some form of debate on Syria before the recess as Natascha Engel, the Labour chair of the backbench business committee, said on Tuesday it was "important" that the topic be discussed in the Commons.

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