Ministers fear Blair 'parallels' as David Cameron pushes to arm Syrian rebels

Ten years after Iraq, 81 Tory MPs sign letter to No 10 demanding substantive commons vote before arms are sent to rebels

Cabinet ministers fear David Cameron is in danger of aping Tony Blair as the prime minister pushes for the arming of Syrian rebels and even holds out the prospect of military intervention in one of the most sensitive areas in the world.

As 81 Tory MPs signed a letter to No 10 demanding a substantive Commons vote before arms are sent to the rebels, senior figures warned of parallels between Cameron and Blair as the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war is marked.

One figure familiar with the thinking at senior levels of the cabinet said: "There are parallels with Tony Blair. He got a high out of his military success in Kosovo and Sierra Leone where he felt there was a moral imperative to act. There is an element of that with David Cameron who feels there is a moral imperative to act after he visited Syrian refugees in Jordan. The prime minister is further ahead than most people on this."

Senior cabinet figures have become so alarmed that Sir George Young, the chief whip, has warned Cameron that he would probably lose a Commons vote on arming the rebels. The leader of the house, Andrew Lansley, confirmed to MPs on Thursday that a vote would be held if the government decided to arm the rebels.

The prime minister is understood to have experienced what senior figures described as a "wake-up call" when a succession of senior MPs lined up to question his stance on Syria as he delivered a statement on Monday on the Woolwich attack and the recent EU summit. One Tory said: "A prime minister can be given all the intelligence about the thinking of MPs but until they come face to face with it they may not quite grasp the strength of feeling. Cameron can be in no doubt now."

The concerns about the prime minister's apparent interest in reprising his success in Libya, voiced privately by William Hague and Nick Clegg, do not amount to criticism. Ministers believe he has the best of motives. They acknowledge that Syria and its neighbours are so unstable that it is impossible to make predictions and that Britain may have to arm the rebels and the British military may intervene.

One Whitehall source said: "This is not a yellow [Lib Dem] on blue [Tory] issue. There is a spectrum of opinion. Nobody knows how this is going to end up. People are wrestling with very difficult issues – this is not a science."

Nick Clegg made a point of praising Hague's handling of the crisis. He told his weekly LBC show: "What we have done – and I think William Hague has been very skilful and sensible in doing this – is make sure that if we were to take that decision [to arm the rebels] we are able to do so. But I think everybody accepts, and everybody accepts this in the government we've been talking about this for months, there is never any military solution to something like this you have to at the end of the day end for some kind of political reconciliation between the moderate forces in the Alawite community, one presently led by the blood Assad, and the moderate forces in the opposition."

But there is a feeling that Cameron may have stumbled when he told colleagues last month that he had had a positive meeting in Sochi with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Cameron thought Putin was moderating his hardline support for Bashar al-Assad after their meeting overran and Putin moved his papers to one side and asked to hear the prime minister's thoughts on Syria. Within two weeks, after the EU announced the lifting of the arms embargo, Moscow announced that it would send new arms to Syria.

One Tory said: "It is important not to forget Putin's track record and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is a harde-headed individual. The Russian economy is in a dreadful state and it bullies its neighbours."

The Tory whips are telling Cameron that he is likely to face defeat in any substantive Commons vote because hawks, such as the former shadow defence minister Dr Julian Lewis, are lining up with veteran opponents of military action, such as George Galloway, to warn of the dangers of intervention.

Lewis said: "I am not in the slightest bit surprised about the cabinet [debate]. You can be as hawkish as you like on defence – and I think generally speaking I fall into that category – and it is precisely because I am hard-headed and generally fairly tough on defence that I can see that the possible bringing together of a stock of deadly nerve gases, which at the moment are little threat to us because they are under the control of the atrocious Assad regime, with the equally atrocious al-Qaida affiliates would be absolutely lethal. Intervention would be absolutely against our strategic and security interests."

Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, indicated that a debate was underway. He told the BBC: "My sense at some point is we need ultimately to decide where we stand on this, one way or the other, we have to make sure we're not in a halfway house. We either want to support key rebels – of course, there are risks in that – or we want to say: 'Look, we can't' and leave them in the clear picture they're not going to get that support."

The cabinet divisions were highlighted on Thursday by the Daily Mail and the Independent.


Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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