After Syria strikes, British PM May to face critical parliament
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May will face criticism on Monday for bypassing parliament to join weekend air strikes against Syria, with some lawmakers calling for a potentially damaging vote on her future strategy.
May, who has regained confidence after winning support for her tough stance on Syria and Russia, will make a statement to parliament on her decision to join the United States and France in Saturday’s strikes in retaliation for a suspected gas attack.
She has also requested a so-called emergency debate, which her spokesman presented as an attempt to soothe tensions and offer parliament three more hours to discuss the action. Critics said it was a way to try to stop any “meaningful vote”.
“The prime minister has set out very clearly over the weekend her reasons for taking the action... in Syria. Her focus today is on making a statement to parliament, allowing parliament to scrutinise that decision,” her spokesman said.
She will repeat Saturday’s assertion that Britain is “confident in our own assessment that the Syrian regime was highly likely responsible” and that it could not wait “to alleviate further humanitarian suffering caused by chemical weapons attacks”, according to excerpts of her speech.
She has repeatedly said the strikes were “right and legal”.
But May will be grilled over why she broke with a convention, which dates back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to seek parliamentary approval for the action, a decision that she and her ministers say was driven by the need to act quickly.
Much of the criticism will come from opposition lawmakers, but the prime minister may also have to work hard to defend her speed of action to members of her own Conservative Party who had wanted parliament recalled.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, has questioned the legal basis for Britain’s involvement.
“She could have recalled parliament last week,” Corbyn, a veteran peace campaigner, said on Sunday.
“I think what we need in this country is something more robust, like a War Powers Act, so governments do get held to account by parliament for what they do in our name,” he told BBC television.
Britain has said there are no plans for future strikes against Syria. Foreign minister Boris Johnson, in Luxembourg, again said the strikes were not aimed at regime change in Syria, but rather designed to send a message.
Corbyn’s drive for legislation to limit the government’s power to launch future military action could win support in parliament, where some Conservatives have expressed fears that the strikes on Syria could worsen the situation.
Many Britons were scarred by the country’s involvement in the Iraq war, especially after an inquiry concluded that then-prime minister Tony Blair’s decision to join the U.S.-led operation was based on flawed intelligence.
In 2013, May’s predecessor, David Cameron, lost a vote on launching air strikes against Assad’s forces.
Citing what he described as a “litany of errors” in Britain’s handling of “previous interventions since 2003 and in Syria”, Conservative lawmaker John Baron urged May to “address how she will respond in future to any chemical weapons attacks, and parliament’s role in this process”.
Despite winning international backing, May, who has weathered questions over her leadership due to Brexit and party scandals, has a precarious position in parliament after losing the Conservatives’ majority in an ill-judged election last June.
She now relies on the support of a small Northern Irish party, which has supported the action in Syria, and has tried to dodge votes that might not go her way.
It was not clear whether Labour or other opposition parties would be able to force an alternative emergency debate, or whether the speaker in the House of Commons would grant what one party source called a “meaningful vote”.
But in a sign that the government feels under pressure, one lawmaker said on condition of anonymity that the party’s whips, charged with maintaining voting discipline, had made clear that Conservatives should vote with the government.
Defending May’s decision on Syria, one of her ministers said on Monday only the government had access to the necessary intelligence.
“Outsourcing that decision to people who do not have the full picture is, I think, quite wrong,” International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt told BBC radio.
additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Gareth Jones