Theresa May dodged a parliamentary vote on Syrian air strikes because she knew she would lose

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Theresa May dodged a parliamentary vote on Syrian air strikes because she knew she would lose

Theresa may airstrikes

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Last year, Donald Trump launched strikes within three days of a chemical weapons atrocity, but this time he waited a week, giving Britain and France time to join him – but also giving May time to consult parliament if she wanted to

On the gravestone of Robin Cook, leader of the House of Commons at the time of the invasion of Iraq, is an inscription: “I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of parliament to decide on war.”

It wasn’t true, as was confirmed last night. The evolution of the convention that the House of Commons should approve military action is more complicated than most people, including Cook, realised.

Legally, the decision to go to war is taken by the Queen acting through and on the advice of her ministers. It is a decision of her government, which derives its authority from its command of a majority of MPs in the Commons, but it does not require a vote of MPs beforehand.

Clement Attlee did not ask the House to vote to join the US in the Korean war in 1950, although Winston Churchill, who supported it as leader of the opposition, argued that the prime minister should have done. “It is better to have a division so that everyone can know how the House of Commons stands and in what proportion,” Churchill said, despite the danger that a “handful of dissenters” might create “false impressions” abroad that the country was disunited.

Anthony Eden did not put Suez to a vote. Margaret Thatcher didn’t ask for a vote before dispatching the task force to retake the Falklands, although parliament was recalled on a Saturday when the Labour opposition led by Michael Foot urged her on. John Major did not have a vote on the Gulf War in 1991, although 57 MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn, recorded their opposition by the procedural device of voting against a motion to adjourn.

Then came Tony Blair and Robin Cook. Cook was foreign secretary when Saddam Hussein defied the UN by expelling its inspectors from Iraq in February 1998. For the first time, the prime minister agreed to put the question of the use of force to an explicit vote of MPs on a government motion. It was carried by 493 votes to 25, and Saddam backed down, but Blair regretted giving the 25, again including Corbyn, the chance to express their opposition. He would not do so again until 2003.

When Saddam again ended cooperation with UN inspectors at the end of 1998, Blair refused to give the Commons a new vote, and resorted to a procedural ambush to prevent Corbyn and others voting on a motion of their own. British jets joined the US air force in a four-day bombing campaign called Operation Desert Fox.

Blair denied MPs a vote on action in Sierra Leone and Kosovo. Corbyn was again among the handful of Labour MPs who engineered a protest vote after the bombing of Serbia had started in 1999 – at the time enraging Clare Short, international development secretary, who called them “a disgrace to the Labour Party” and, in an interview the next day, “like those who appeased Hitler”.

It wasn’t until the Iraq war of 2003 that MPs were again to vote on a government motion explicitly to approve military action. This was the basis of Cook’s posthumous claim: but the vote was a product of its time. Partly because that invasion was so long in preparation, contrary to the cliché of the “rush to war”, it became impossible for Blair to avoid a vote. His cabinet and party would not have allowed it: as it was, half of his backbenchers voted against the government.

Nearly a decade later, David Cameron held a vote on Libyan air strikes in 2011 – but after the event, rather than before, on the grounds that it was urgent action to avert a massacre. Then, in 2013, he lost a vote to authorise strikes in Syria that would have been similar to last night’s: designed to deter Assad’s use of chemical weapons. That vote had consequences, in tipping Barack Obama away from launching US strikes himself.

On that occasion, Ed Miliband changed his position late in the day after opinion polls suggested strikes were unpopular. But the decisive group were the 30 Conservative MPs who voted against Cameron – a group that Theresa May knows are still there, even if some of the faces are different after two elections.

She knew, too, that Labour interventionists (many of whom bitterly regret obeying the party whip in 2013) and the DUP (who voted against in 2013 but support her today) were not enough to guarantee that she would win a vote this time.

That is why, although she could have recalled parliament on Thursday, when the cabinet held an emergency meeting, she chose not to.

No wonder she was so inarticulate when asked this morning why she hadn’t gone to parliament. She said the response had to be “timely” and she was “working with international partners”. The first is unconvincing and the second, that the timetable – as Corbyn alleges – was set by President Trump, is worse.

Last year, Donald Trump launched strikes within three days of a chemical weapons atrocity, but this time he waited a week, giving Britain and France time to join him – but also giving May time to consult parliament if she wanted to.

She could have had a vote on the principle of punitive strikes designed to deter Assad from breaking the Chemical Weapons Convention again. Just as Blair held that vote in 1998 on the principle of strikes to force Saddam to comply with the UN. But she might have lost, whereas Blair won overwhelmingly.

She will have to explain, when she faces the House and the ghost of Robin Cook on Monday, why she chose to defy parliament and public opinion. In a democracy, there ought to be a price to pay.

John Rentoul is Chief Political Commentator for The Independent, and visiting professor at King’s College, London. Author of The Banned List, Questions To Which The Answer Is No, Listellany and a biography of Tony Blair.

Comment: And in a follow-upThe Independent reports a poll found May had only 25% support for her illegal strike:

Only a quarter of Britons backed the UK’s decision to launch air strikes in Syria to punish the country’s regime for allegedly using chemical weapons, a new poll has revealed.

Asked to what extent people would back “UK forces conducting targeted air or missile strikes on Syrian government military targets”, just 28 per cent supported them, while 36 per cent opposed, 26 per cent neither opposed nor supported the strikes and 11 per cent did not know.

Interestingly, a no-fly zone over Syria policed by Western allies received far greater support, suggesting large numbers of people are convinced of a need to act.

Almost half of people asked (47 per cent) backed a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Syria’s civil war, just 11 per cent opposed, 9 per cent neither opposed nor supported and 12 per cent did not know.

A moot point. Russia has rendered imposing a no-fly zone in Syria virtually impossible

There was an even split when asked if people would back some troops in Syria in non-combat roles, with a third backing the idea and a third against, but there was strong opposition to deploying soldiers in combat roles – with 48 per cent disapproving and just 19 per cent approving.

But the BMG poll results could temper Ms May’s approach, as she now faces having to spend political capital to justify the attacks in the Commons – where some Tories and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were angry at being denied a vote in advance of the strikes.

The prime minister began on Saturday by publishing the elements of the government’s legal case for the operation, including that there had been convincing evidence of “extreme humanitarian distress”, no alternative but to act and an operation that was “proportionate to relieve humanitarian suffering”.

At the press conference earlier, Ms May said her cabinet had considered the legal advice and intelligence around the Douma incident before acting.

She went on: “And based on this advice we agreed that it was both right and legal to take military action, together with our closest allies, to alleviate further humanitarian suffering by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their use.

“This was not about interfering in a civil war and it was not about regime change.”

Horsehockey. Of course it is, and has been for decades.

Declassified CIA memo shows how US has been plotting Syrian regime change for decades

That did not stop Mr Corbyn branding the action as “legally questionable”, before adding: “Bombs won’t save lives or bring about peace

“Britain should be playing a leadership role to bring about a ceasefire in the conflict, not taking instructions from Washington and putting British military personnel in harm’s way.

“Theresa May should have sought parliamentary approval, not trailed after Donald Trump.”

BMG interviewed a representative sample of 1,562 adults living in Great Britain between 10th and 13th April. Data are weighted. BMG are members of the British polling council and abide by their rules