May Faces Second Debate in Two Days on U.K. Joining Syria Attack
(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May will face a second debate in as many days on Britain’s role in bombing Syria on Tuesday after she stayed late the night before listening to lawmakers’ views in the House of Commons.
The premier endured six and half hours of proceedings on Monday -- including more than three hours answering 140 direct questions from members -- as she sought to demonstrate her commitment to Parliament in the face of allegations that she had rushed to war without seeking proper approval.
May said there wasn’t time to consult lawmakers before Britain joined U.S. and French airstrikes on Syrian military targets on Saturday and dismissed opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s accusation that she was acting on “the whims of the U.S. president” as an insult to her government.
“We’ve not done this because President Trump asked us to do so, we’ve done it because we believe it was the right thing to do and we were not alone,” May told lawmakers. “We’ve always been clear that the government has the right to act quickly in the national interest,” she said. “It’s my responsibility as prime minister to make these decisions -- and I will.”
U.K. intelligence services concluded that chemical weapons were used in an attack on the town of Douma on April 7 and there was “absolutely no doubt” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible, May said. It was a “stain on our humanity” that demanded action sooner than would be possible if she had waited for lawmakers or the United Nations, she said.
May easily won a procedural vote late Monday, noting that “this house has considered the current situation in Syria and the U.K. government’s approach,” by 314 votes to 36. There will be another non-binding vote Tuesday after the speaker granted Corbyn’s request for an urgent debate on military action requiring parliamentary approval.
“The prime minister is accountable to this Parliament, not the whims of the U.S. president,” Corbyn said. “There’s no more serious issue than the life-and-death matter of military action, and Parliament has the right to support or stop the government taking military action.”
While there’s no legal requirement for the prime minister to seek the backing of lawmakers, it has been the accepted practice since Britain joined the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Fast action was needed to alleviate human suffering and stop further chemical attacks, May said, adding that Britain had “explored every possible diplomatic channel” before acting. If Britain had waited for UN backing -- one of Corbyn’s key demands -- it would have meant giving Russia a “veto on our foreign policy,” May said, pushing back on the opposition leader’s statement that the attacks were “legally questionable.”
Drawing a link to the attempted murder of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, western England, last month, May said the attack sent a message that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.
“We can’t go back to a world where the use of chemical weapons becomes normalized,” May said. The airstrikes in Syria “will send a message to anyone who thinks they can use chemical weapons with impunity.”
A series of lawmakers from Corbyn’s Labour Party broke ranks with their leader to tell May that they backed the military action and pleaded with her to allow more refugees from Syria to travel to Britain.
“A policy of inaction would also have consequences,” Chris Leslie, the party’s former economy spokesman said as he backed the strikes before adding a pointed attack on his leader. “Those who would turn a blind eye -- who would do nothing in pursuit of some moral high ground -- should today also be held accountable for once.”
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