Defiant Theresa May survives Commons grilling on Syria
Little support among MPs for Corbyn’s criticism but public may take different view
If Theresa May had any doubts about her decision to launch air strikes against Syria without prior parliamentary approval, she showed no sign of it on Monday during a defiant performance in the House of Commons. Almost every opposition speaker and some from her own benches, including former chancellor Ken Clarke, told her she should have come to the House before the Royal Air Force joined US and French forces in the missile attack.
She held firm, however, to her assertion that it was the responsibility of the executive to take such decisions and repeatedly refused to rule out taking military action again without MPs’ approval. In doing so, she has put an end to the convention that has held since 2003, when Tony Blair won parliamentary backing before the invasion of Iraq.
The government will have been pleased that the number of Conservatives demanding that parliament should have a say was relatively small and that the military action itself had overwhelming Tory support. Her MPs were united in their condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the prime minister’s statement, in which he questioned the legal basis of the air strikes and accused her of acting on Donald Trump’s whim.
The government claims that the action was legal on the basis of humanitarian intervention, because it was in response to “extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief”, there was no practical alternative to the use of force, and it was necessary and proportionate to prevent further suffering.
The Labour leader pointed out that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is not universally accepted and that, even if it was, the air strikes failed the government’s own tests. He said that all diplomatic avenues had not been exhausted and that Washington, London and Paris should have waited until weapons inspectors had reported from Douma.
Most Labour MPs condemned the prime minister’s failure to consult parliament and made no reference to their leader’s doubts about the legal basis for the action. A number of Corbyn’s backbench critics, however, openly contradicted their leader and endorsed May’s assertion that the Labour leader’s demand that military action should be backed by the UN would give Russia a veto on British foreign policy.
The prime minister had a good day in the House and, on the face of it, Corbyn had an uncomfortable one. But the British public has turned against foreign military interventions since the Iraq war and the Labour leader’s views may chime more with popular feeling than they do with many of his own MPs.