Theresa May says 'element of surprise' was crucial to Syria bombing, a week after Trump announced it on Twitter

The PM  said parliament couldn't have been given a say in advance because 'the element of uncertainty was crucial'

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Tuesday 17 April 2018 17:15
Theresa May says maintaining an element of surprise was why she didn't consult parliament before launching military intervention

It is not a strict constitutional requirement, but it has become convention that when a prime minister exercises his or her constitutional right to order military action without consulting parliament, parliament must then hold as long and as pointless a debate as possible over whether or not it should have been consulted in the first place.

Most British political historians agree this convention dates all the way back to Monday 16 April 2018, when the House of Commons debated this very matter for seven hours, before finally deciding it shouldn’t have been consulted about the military action it hadn’t been consulted about.

And it continued well into Tuesday, when Jeremy Corbyn led four identical hours of pointless debate on the exact same topic.

Plus, for reasons that are too parochial to explain, Mr Corbyn only succeeded in having the debate granted by wording it in a way that meant he didn’t actually want it to pass. So at the end of four hours of discussion, he ordered his own MPs to vote against his own motion, raising the afternoon’s events from your common or garden waste of time to actual performance art levels of pointlessness.

That a prime minister has the right to order military action without parliamentary approval is sensible and crucial. Military action often needs to be done quickly, and clandestinely. But just as often, in recent times, prime ministers have granted a vote on the matter, making the right and proper course of action and endlessly contestable discussion with no right or wrong answer, and thus a perfect topic for unending parliamentary debate.

On Tuesday, just as on Monday, Jeremy Corbyn wanted to know why Theresa May recalled parliament before giving the go ahead for the bombing of Syrian chemical weapons facilities on Saturday morning.

There are a range of answers to this, some of which the prime minister gave, some she did not. Their relative importance you will have to decide for yourself.

It is at least theoretically possible that she remembers David Cameron offering a parliamentary vote on British military action in Syria in the wake of an Assad chemical attack in 2013, and then losing it. (David Cameron, needlessly holding a vote and then losing it: arguably, the warning signs were there.)

But these were not the reasons given. In fact, Theresa May explained: “The element of surprise is crucial.” Both the “timing and the targets”, she said, were highly sensitive matters that, had she given a statement to parliament in advance, parliament would have expected her to divulge. “Our ability to exploit uncertainty was also a crucial part of the mission,” she said.

Those of a churlish disposition might wish to point out that the “element of surprise” in this particular mission had been somewhat compromised on Wednesday, when Donald Trump had become angry during his breakfast TV viewing, and via the not wholly clandestine medium of Twitter, told Syria’s ally Russia to “get ready” because “they [the missiles] are coming, nice and new and ‘smart.’’”

This was an intervention, by the way, that came five days in to extensive debate over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and whether or not the West would respond by bombing Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.

So Theresa May is of course absolutely right to point out that the Syrians will have been as shocked as anyone, when the missiles Donald Trump had told them to get ready for, finally arrived on Saturday, aimed at the country’s chemical weapons development sites.

Had any of this been discussed in the House of Commons, well, all that uncertainty would have gone entirely unexploited.

Again, Conservative MPs wanted to know whether, if parliament were formally granted the right to vote on all military action, whether there would be any circumstance in which Jeremy Corbyn would vote for it. Andrew Bridgen suggested the Labour leader “would not even vote to retake the Isle of Wight”.

Tit-for-tat fire was returned in kind from the other side. The MPs Karen Lee of Lincoln and Sharon Hodgson of Washington and Sunderland West both wanted to know why Donald Trump, rather than the British parliament, was deciding British foreign policy, a suggestion Theresa May had to scowl at for around the twenty fifth time in two days.

It didn’t last. After deliberately losing his own motion, the house moved on to another of Jeremy Corbyn’s favourite topics – an hour long debate on antisemitism. It was the Labour leader’s turn to scowl, virtually unbroken for an hour or more, though he did not rise to his feet to speak.

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