Theresa May has faced MPs to defend her decision to launch air strikes against the Syrian government, but ducked calls to give parliament a retrospective vote on the matter.
Speaking in the House of Commons, the prime minister dismissed suggestions the government had followed the “whims” of Donald Trump and insisted she had taken the decision to launch strikes because it was in the UK’s national interest.
But she faced criticism from MPs, including some on her own benches, for not seeking a vote of parliament before launching the strikes.
Instead, the Commons is likely to vote on the issue on Tuesday after Jeremy Corbyn was granted permission for a debate on intervention in Syria.
MPs also discussed the matter during another debate, called by Labour backbencher Alison McGovern, on Monday night.
There had earlier been suggestions the government could give MPs a retrospective vote on military action, but ministers refused to do so.
During a Commons statement and more than three hours answering questions from MPs, Ms May defended her decision to order the RAF to join the US and France in launching strikes designed to cripple Bashar al-Assad’s regime’s chemical weapons capabilities.
Air strikes were launched against three Syrian military facilities on Friday night after reports that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons against civilians in the town of Douma.
Defending her decision not to first consult parliament, Ms May told MPs: “The speed with which we acted was essential in co-operating with our partners to alleviate further humanitarian suffering and to maintain the vital security of our operations.
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She added: “This was a limited, targeted strike on a legal basis that has been used before.
“And it was a decision which required the evaluation of intelligence and information much of which was of a nature that could not be shared with parliament.”
Ms May also dismissed claims she had acted only because Donald Trump asked her to.
She said: “Let me be absolutely clear: we have acted because it is in our national interest to do so.
“It is in our national interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria – and to uphold and defend the global consensus that these weapons should not be used.
“For we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – either within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere.
She added: “So we have not done this because President Trump asked us to do so.
“We have done it because we believed it was the right thing to do. And we are not alone: there is broad based international support for the action we have taken.”
However, Mr Corbyn suggested the UK had blindly followed Mr Trump into “legally questionable” strikes and re-iterated calls for a new War Powers Act to enshrine parliament’s right to be given a vote before the UK engages in military action.
The Labour leader said: “This statement serves as a reminder that the prime minister is accountable to this parliament, not to the whims of the US president.
“We clearly need a War Powers Act in this country to transform a now broken convention into a legal obligation.”
He said of Ms May: “Her predecessor came to this House to seek authority for military action in Libya and in Syria in 2015, and the House had a vote over Iraq in 2003.
“There is no more serious issue than the life and death matters of military action. It is right that parliament has the power to support or stop the government from taking planned military action.”
Mr Corbyn’s response was met with cries of “shame” from Conservative MPs and criticism from a number of his own backbenchers.
Tory MP Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general, said the Labour leader’s position meant “any tyrant, megalomaniac, person intent on carrying out genocide, if they have the support of an amoral state within the [United Nations] Security Council, would be able to conduct that genocide with total impunity even if it was within our power to act to prevent it.”
Ms May replied: “I absolutely agree with him, he is absolutely right.”
Labour critics of Mr Corbyn also condemned his response.
In a thinly-veiled attack on his party leader, Chris Leslie said: “A policy of inaction also would have severe consequences and those who would turn a blind eye, who would do nothing in pursuit of some moral high ground, should also be held accountable today – for once – as well.”
John Woodcock said the UK had a proud history of “advancing the principle of intervention to prevent humanitarian catastrophe”, adding it would be “shameful if that were abandoned now by people who in fact would not countenance intervention under any circumstances”.
A third Labour MP, Mike Gapes, added: “Can I remind the prime minister and also the right honourable member for Islington North [Mr Corbyn] that it was a Labour government with Robin Cook as foreign secretary that carried out air strikes in Iraq under Operation Desert Fox in 1998 without a UN resolution, that it was a Labour government that restored President Kabbah in Sierra Leone without a UN resolution, that it was a Labour government that stopped the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo without a UN resolution and that there is a longstanding and noble tradition on these benches of supporting humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect”.
However, Mr Corbyn’s calls for parliament to be given a vote before troops are deployed were backed by several Conservatives, including veteran MP Ken Clarke.
“Once President Trump had announced to the world what he was proposing, a widespread debate was taking place everywhere, including many MPs in the media, but no debate in parliament,” Mr Clarke said.
He suggested the prime minister should establish “a cross-party commission of some kind to set out precisely what the role of parliament is in modern times in the use of military power against another state”
Mr Clarke also asked Ms May to clarify “what exceptions, if any, there can be to the usual rule that the Government needs parliamentary approval for taking grave actions of this kind”.
Voicing similar concerns, Tory backbencher John Barron said: “Such decisions are always difficult and prime ministers must retain the leeway to commit armed forces in extremis, but I hope that she will also understand that many are concerned, given our previous track record of errors in previous interventions and in Syria, that government should be properly scrutinised before committing troops”.
The Government was criticised for refusing to give MPs a retrospective vote on military action. Ministers had tried to call an emergency debate on the matter but this was rejected by Commons speaker John Bercow, who instead granted a debate proposed by Labour backbencher Alison McGovern.
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Mr Bercow said he would be willing to consider a full government motion on Syria, but minsters refused to put one forward, prompting fury from MPs who accused the government of sidelining parliament.
Mr Bercow said: “I am not an obstacle to an amendable government motion. If the government wanted to table such a motion, they could have done.
“If they told me they were going to do so, that would have been fine. The Government did no such thing.”
Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House, said Ms May’s three and a half hours answering MPs’ questions meant parliament had been given sufficient opportunity to scrutinise the government on the decision to launch air strikes.
But Mr Bercow’s decision to grant Mr Corbyn a debate gives Labour the opportunity to force a vote on a motion of its choosing – prompting whips from both main parties to leap into action to ensure rebellious MPs toe the line.