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Syria vote: Nick Clegg’s loss heads off grassroots rebellion

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It was not a case of being Cameron’s poodle, as some Liberal Democrats saw it. In private meetings, Nick Clegg was just as passionate as the Prime Minister in arguing for military strikes against the Assad regime for committing a war crime against his own people.

Politically, supporting UK involvement was risky for a party which won the respect of many voters for opposing the Iraq War. This time, it was Labour, not the Liberal Democrats, who enjoyed the luxury of being in opposition.

The Deputy Prime Minister did not take his decision lightly. “He has been wrestling with it, lying awake at night,” one ally said. In his discussions with David Cameron, Mr Clegg argued strongly for United Nations involvement before military intervention.

But his stance failed to win over doubters in his party: only 30 of the other 56 Liberal Democrat MPs backed him in the Commons vote, nine of them voting against the motion. “This issue touched a raw nerve for most of us,” said Lord Oakeshott, the Liberal Democrat peer. “Our MPs wisely and resolutely refused to rush to judgement.”

There is a potential silver lining for Mr Clegg. If the Commons had voted for UK involvement in military action, it would be taking place in the run-up to the Liberal Democrats’ annual conference in Glasgow in two weeks. Mr Clegg would have faced a damaging grassroots rebellion. The issue will still be debated, but will not now put his leadership under renewed pressure.