The US is about to arm the Syrian rebels - it's decision time for Cameron

The decision by the Obama administration to provide lethal aid means that the Prime Minister can no longer remain on the fence.

The US has finally confirmed what the UK and Europe have long regarded as clear: that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against the rebels and that President Obama's famous "red line" has been crossed. 

"Following a deliberative review our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year," said the White House's statement. 

"Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information. The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete."

After this statement, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes announced that the US would provide "further support" to the opposition's Supreme Military Council, including "military support". The language was deliberately opaque. Was Rhodes referring to non-lethal equipment such as vehicles, communications and body armour, or was he referring to military arms? "I can't detail what type of support yet" was his response. But judging by reports from the US media, the answer is the latter. The New York Times states that the administration has decided to supply the rebels with "small arms and ammunition", describing it as "lethal aid". It's also notable that while playing down reports that a no-fly zone is set to be established on the Jordanian border, Rhodes said nothing to rule out this option. 

All of which means that it is now decision time for David Cameron. After succeeding in lifting the EU arms embargo, Cameron insisted at PMQs this week that the government "had not made a decision to supply the Syrian opposition with weapons", adding that it was providing "assistance, advice and technical help". When Ed Miliband pressed him on what "safeguards" were in place should lethal equipment be supplied, he again declared: "we are not supplying the opposition with weapons. We are supplying them with technical assistance and non-lethal equipment." 

But the US decision to supply "lethal aid" means that the Prime Minister can no longer remain on the fence. On the Today programme this morning, Conservative MP John Baron, one of many sceptics on the Tory benches, declared that "we don't have to follow the US". The question for Cameron, who has all but confirmed that the Commons will be given a vote on arming the rebels, is whether we will. 

Syrian rebel fighters belonging to the 'Martyrs of Maaret al-Numan' battalion leave their position after a range of shootings on June 13, 2013 in the northwestern town of Maaret al-Numan. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.