Theresa May has conceded that lawmakers should have a retrospective debate — and possibly a vote — on her decision to take part in the bombing of Syria with the US and France.
After the British prime minister and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson both said that there was no need for such a vote, May’s office said that she would ask Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow to agree to an emergency debate, which was expected to take place on Monday.
May will first defend her decision that will set out her reasons for supporting the bombing and take questions from lawmakers. If Bercow agrees — and it’s unlikely he wouldn’t — the debate will then follow. “We have acted because it is in our national interest to do so,” May will say in her statement, according to her office. “It is in our national interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria. We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised — either within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere.”
Parliament’s emergency debate procedure allows a motion that the chamber has considered an issue, and it would be up to the opposition to push for a vote. Despite the vague wording, it would be disastrous for May if she lost because it would indicate that lawmakers didn’t support her decision.
International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt on Monday was unable to confirm a vote will take place, but signaled it was unlikely to be a useful exercise because lawmakers lacked the intelligence briefings needed to make a fully informed decision.
“You would need to know information that could not be shared with every MP,” Mordaunt said in a BBC radio interview. “So outsourcing that decision to people who do not have the full picture is, I think, quite wrong.”
May will explain that the need to respond quickly to an alleged chemical weapons attack by Bashar Al-Assad’s government meant there was no time to recall Parliament. That’s unlikely to wash with the opposition Labour party, whose legal affairs spokeswoman, Shami Chakrabarti, said that Britain wasn’t under imminent threat and that a parliamentary vote should have taken place before the bombing.
“Why did it have to happen on Friday night without parliamentary approval?” Chakrabarti said in a BBC radio interview. “Why did it have to happen before the chemical weapons inspectors had gone in to gather the evidence that could have persuaded broader support?” The concession of the debate is another example of May’s habit of picking fights she can’t win.
Opposition lawmakers were always going to ask for a debate, and Bercow was highly likely to agree, so this retreat could have been avoided by simply agreeing to a vote.