New Forest East




BBC Today in Parliament – 10 January 2020

Mark D’Arcy: … And now remember this?

“Order! Order! … The Ayes to the right: 272, the Noes to the left: 285.”

August 2013, and the House of Commons sensationally rejects plans by the then Coalition Government for British planes to take part in airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria, after the dictator’s forces use chemical weapons against civilians in rebel areas. Prime Minister David Cameron folded:

“It is clear tonight that … the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the Government will act accordingly.”

Since then Prime Ministers have been careful to secure MPs’ approval for military action. And with events moving fast in the Gulf, might such concerns be needed again soon? As MPs debated the latest crisis in the Gulf, following the US assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, Jeremy Corbyn made it clear what he would do in the event of another such vote.

“Many of us opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the failed invasion of Afghanistan, and I opposed the bombing of Libya in 2011. Have we learnt nothing from those events? This House must rule out plunging our country into yet another devastating war at the behest of another state.”

So does the 2013 precedent still stand or, bolstered by the first substantial one party majority since 2005, might Boris Johnson believe he needs no such vote? The Conservative Sir Bernard Jenkin chaired the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee before the Election, when they held an inquiry into war powers.

Sir Bernard Jenkin: This is the shadow of the Iraq decision, where Tony Blair did, in fact, consult Parliament before we went to war. But there was a great concern about two issues there. One was about legality, the second was – legitimacy. And actually a vote in Parliament doesn’t legitimise, or legalise, military action. It just expresses the opinion of Parliament. So then people like Jack Straw and William Hague – former leader of the Conservative Party, who became Foreign Secretary – they became committed to the principle of legislating to require Parliament to be consulted. Very interestingly, both of them came in front of my Committee and rescinded that view in the light of experience, and recognised that legislation would be inappropriate, because you could finish up in the Courts when the Government is trying to protect the interests of the United Kingdom.

Mark D’Arcy: Parliament had a series of votes on military action in Iraq, in Libya and in Syria since then. So how would those experiences feed into any possible vote on Iran? Julian Lewis, the Conservative, who chaired the Defence Committee before the Election, talked to me about the legacy of those different votes. Did they now amount to a requirement for MPs to vote on military action?

Dr Julian Lewis: The legal position is probably that Parliament hasn’t got the right to insist on having a vote on whether we decide to get involved in someone else’s fight or not. But the practicalities are that a Government would be very foolish indeed to embark on a major military adventure overseas without trying to take Parliament with it.

Mark D’Arcy: And the giant precedent here is Tony Blair and the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003.

Dr Lewis: Well, yes and no: I mean, the thing about that example is that Tony Blair did take Parliament with him, and all of us, who voted for it on the basis of whatever flawed intelligence, assumptions and information we were given, share responsibility for it, though Tony Blair has his place in history as the person primarily responsible. Yet, if he hadn’t taken Parliament with him, it would have been even worse from his point of view. And another example is the Libyan misadventure in 2011. By then, having seen what had happened in Iraq, I was much more sceptical and I very reluctantly agreed to vote for it on the basis that we were just protecting the citizens of Benghazi with a no-fly zone – and then, of course, it quickly emerged that, as soon as that vote was passed, there was an all-out move to oust Gaddafi with predictably dreadful consequences. There, again, if Cameron had done that without a vote in Parliament – as it is, his reputation has deservedly suffered – but it would have been even worse, from his point of view, if he hadn’t taken Parliament with him.

Mark D’Arcy: And then we have the precedent which goes the other way: the 2013 vote on whether or not to intervene in the Syrian civil war, where Parliament refused permission for that, denied Prime Minister Cameron the mission, as it were, to send RAF bombers in, to join attacks against the Assad regime.

Dr Lewis: And I think that result was that we had learnt, as a Parliament, or at least several of us had, from the previous two experiences: even though we were told that this was not necessarily going to be an all-out attempt to bring him down, almost certainly it would not have stopped until that had been the outcome.

Mark D’Arcy: So how would you apply these experiences to the potential flashpoint that we now see with Iran and the Gulf?

Dr Lewis: Well, the real problem that we’ve got with America’s policy is that we don’t know what that policy is. So, we can’t tell whether or not Trump did this as part of a strategy, or as a completely ad hoc, one-off, response to what was shaping up to be Iranian terrorist assault on American diplomatic staff at an embassy which is a touchstone, as far as America is concerned, given what happened in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic revolution in Iran all those years ago.