Theresa May has decided to break with parliamentary convention and not seek approval from MPs for military action. This is a mistake
Theresa May’s decision to authorise British military action over the skies of Syria by royal prerogative rather than obtaining the backing of parliament was the wrong thing to do. Even if the prime minister thinks it was done for the right reasons. It was wrong because the government’s plans should have been articulated so that MPs could have had a chance to endorse – or reject – a motion to bomb Bashar al-Assad’s weapons factories. It was wrong because there was no emergency – an exception used when after a debate MPs retrospectively endorsed action against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. It was wrong because only prime ministers can recall parliament – and there was time to do so. It was wrong because decisions about how to police the unlawful use of weapons of mass destructive terror in Syria turn upon judgment rather than available facts.
Parliament is the best place to assess whether the use of military force serves the overall interests of a nation in such cases. This is especially true of a government without a majority of its own. Jeremy Corbyn’s resurrection of an old idea for a war powers act, which would force the PM not to authorise the active and large-scale deployment of British forces overseas without the approval of the House of Commons, ought not to be dismissed. But it should be accompanied by a wider recognition that the days of self-regulation of cabinet government are over. Observing the parliamentary convention would be better than creating an act where fractious disagreements over the precise nature of the circumstances in which the law is to be applied – especially in a situation as fluid and volatile as war – prevail.