April 11, 2018
Opposition parties argue for debate before military action, but most MPs agree chemical attack constitutes crossing of red line
Theresa May indicates willingness for military action against Syria
Theresa May has not ruled out committing the UK to join a coordinated military intervention in Syria without consulting MPs, after insisting that chemical weapons attack on Douma “cannot go unchallenged”.
The prime minister will discuss the next steps with her cabinet colleagues on Thursday, after summoning them to an emergency meeting.
Downing Street sources said they would take “one step at a time”, but with the US president, Donald Trump, pressing for urgent action, they did not rule out bypassing the convention that parliament is offered a vote before military action.
Some ministers are privately warning that they still need to be convinced of the evidence against the Syrian regime. But most are expected to offer May their backing, after she said “all the indications are that the Syrian regime was responsible”.
Without a stable majority in parliament, May will be reluctant to risk suffering an embarrassing defeat over military action, as David Cameron did in 2013, when Labour opposed airstrikes in Syria. And with parliament in recess until Monday, some senior MPs insisted that the Commons should not be a block to action.
Johnny Mercer, the MP for Plymouth MP, said: “Binding votes on foreign policy, guided by extremely sensitive intelligence which can never be shared in the Commons, are a bad idea. They can help shape debate – the view of the Commons is extremely important – but must never inhibit our ability to act.”
But Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP have all argued that MPs must be given the chance to debate and vote on May’s plans, as convention dictates. Jeremy Corbyn said: “Parliament should always be given a say on military action” and warned against the risk of airstrikes escalating into a “hot war” between the US and Syria’s backer, Russia.
The Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable, said: “The government must present the objectives of any proposed action to parliament. A unilateral response by any country, outside of a wider strategy, without allies, is not the way forward.”
But unlike Corbyn, he signalled that the Lib Dems could be prepared to back action if it believed May had a coherent plan and was working with international partners. “The use of chemical weapons is a clear red line, and there must be consequences for crossing it. Britain is an outward-facing nation, willing to play our part in upholding international law.”
Some of the Tory rebels who opposed military action in 2013 indicated that they would be willing to throw their weight behind May this time. Andrew Percy said: “My view would be that if the evidence is clear that the Assad regime was the cause of this attack, then the UK must not stand on the sidelines and must work with the US and France on any action against the regime.”
As well as promising to work with “our closest allies” in determining how to hold the Syrian regime to account, the prime minister questioned the role of the UN in investigating what happened on the ground, after Russia’s “appalling” use of its veto to water down plans for an independent UN-led inquiry. Her approach contrasted with that of Corbyn, who warned that any military action could lead to an escalation of the long-running conflict.
The Guardian understands that the Labour leader has not ruled out whipping his MPs to oppose any military action May recommends — though a final decision would depend on what motion she presented to the Commons.
It is unclear whether the DUP’s 10 MPs would back the prime minister, as the confidence and supply agreement the Conservatives struck with them last year did not explicitly cover military intervention. The DUP’s MPs voted against airstrikes in Syria in 2013 – though they could take a different stance today.
In a telephone call with Trump and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, on Tuesday, May agreed that “the international community needed to respond to uphold the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons”.
But some of her ministers remain cautious about action being taken, demanding clear evidence of Syrian involvement – and a careful plan for what happens next, something many thought was absent in 2013. Several Conservative MPs who are now ministers, including Steve Baker, David Davis and Tracey Crouch, voted against military action in 2013, when Ed Miliband defeated David Cameron’s government over the issue.
Labour MP Ruth Smeeth said targeted action would have support from backbench Labour colleagues. “We have to have a genuine debate in parliament so people can hear the evidence. If it is a targeted action, to ensure nobody on the Syrian battlefield can use these weapons, I would hope that would be supported across the house,” she said. “This has to be a strategic and targeted act as an extension of what we are already doing in Syria.”
Smeeth said the images of the chlorine gas attack were heartbreaking. “Unless we target the chemical weapons dumps, we are saying the normalisation of chemical weapons is acceptable. It sends a message to every other tyrant, current and future. There is huge cost to inaction, as much as a cost of action. We never talk about the cost of inaction.”
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