LONDON – British Prime Minister 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 U.S. and France.
After she and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson both said over the weekend that there was no need for such a vote, May’s office said late Sunday that she would ask Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow to agree to an emergency debate, to take place on Monday.
May will first defend her decision, in a statement to Parliament about 3.30 p.m., 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 normalized — either within Syria, on the streets of the U.K. or elsewhere.”
Parliament’s emergency debate procedure allows a motion that 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.
May will explain that the need to respond quickly to an alleged chemical weapons attack by Bashar Assad’s government meant there was no time to recall Parliament.
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 Saturday.
Still, the debate itself is likely to expose divisions within the opposition Labour Party between leader Jeremy Corbyn, an opponent of all military actions by the U.K. and U.S., and those of his lawmakers who see confronting chemical weapons use as essential.
Johnson on Sunday insisted that the strike against Syria’s alleged chemical arms infrastructure was limited and a one-off, rather than the start of something wider. To lawmakers who expressed concern about being dragged into a larger conflict, this will be an important reassurance.
The foreign secretary told the BBC that there was “no proposal on the table” for further strikes, in contrast to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who on Saturday said that her country is “locked and loaded” for another attack if necessary.
“The overwhelming purpose, the mission was to send a message,” Johnson said. “Finally the world has said enough is enough.”
He allowed that this meant “the rest of the Syrian war must proceed as it will” and that Assad would be allowed to “butcher his way” to victory.
Corbyn on Sunday told the BBC that the legal basis for the attack on Syria was “debatable.” He called for the U.S. to work with Russia to deliver a cease-fire in the civil war.
That puts him once again at odds with many of his party’s lawmakers. One of them, Chuka Umunna, told ITV that while May should have consulted Parliament before the bombing, he supported the strikes.
“I don’t think you should hide behind the inevitable Russian veto at the United Nations Security Council as an excuse not to act,” he said. “There is a clear legal basis here. There are consequences in not acting.”
The strikes have also highlighted once again the division between Corbyn and the government over the role of Russia in world affairs.
To Corbyn, Russia is a potential partner. He called for a repeat of the 2013 process that saw the U.S. and U.K. back away from a punitive attack on Assad while Russia negotiated what was supposed to be the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.
“Several hundred tons of chemical weapons were destroyed as a result of that process,” Corbyn told the BBC.
He also appeared to retreat from his comments to Parliament at the end of March that Vladimir Putin’s government had “a direct or indirect responsibility” for the nerve agent attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal. Although Corbyn has had private briefings on the intelligence behind the British government’s decision to blame Russia, he told the BBC he was unconvinced.
“I want to see incontrovertible evidence of it,” he said. “It’s very clear that the nerve agent itself is very similar to those that have been made in Russia. Obviously there has to be some challenge to Russia on this.”
Asked whether he agreed the poisoning was a state-sponsored assassination attempt, he replied: “If we’re going to make a very, very clear assertion like that we’ve got to have the absolute evidence to do it.”
Corbyn’s office said later that his view hadn’t changed, and that his question was whether the attack was the work of the Russian government.
May’s government views Putin as a serious problem, rather than a possible partner. Russia has suggested that both the poisoning of Skripal and the chemical weapon attack in Syria might have been a false flag operation by Britain. Johnson described the first idea as “utterly preposterous and deranged” and the second as “absolutely demented.”