The Syria vote was a triumph of parliamentary sovereignty

Votes such as last night's are no longer mere rubber stamps but a binding convention that can change the foreign policy of a government.

There are several significant angles to last night's Commons vote on Syria. Foreign policy experts look at Britain’s role in the world and our relationship with the United States; domestic politicos look through the prism of party politics, asking who came out better between Miliband and Cameron. Meanwhile, Syria continues to suffer and we can only now hope that inaction is the lesser of two evils.

But amid the fallout, easily obscured by the more obvious issues of the day, is a seismic shift in the British constitution, an evolution that has crept up quietly but which serves to empower Parliament and constrain the executive. 

While the Prime Minister officially retains the Royal Prerogative to declare war, it is clear that this power is now tempered by the convention that Parliament must vote on the matter beforehand.

Previous votes on Iraq and Libya, while contentious, saw the government of the day validated by the Commons. Before this it had been understood that the executive had a right and duty to declare war as it saw fit. The real test of this innovation was whether a government convinced of the need for military action would respect a vote that opposed it.

The fact that Cameron had to promise the House that it would have a second vote, the fact he has now changed course so dramatically – while retaining the right to declare war - shows that votes like this are not simply rubber stamps but have become a binding convention that can change the foreign policy of a government.

Ironically, by calling an unprecedented vote on Iraq, Tony Blair, the most presidential of prime ministers, set in place an innovation that created a precedent largely devolving 'war powers' from the executive to the legislature.

Frustrating for many, our uncodified constitution is nevertheless pragmatic and far from conventions being ignored (as many fear has increasingly happened) a new one that curtails government power has clearly entrenched itself.

In the Lords, former generals, admirals, defence secretaries and ambassadors urged caution, while the debate in the Commons was marked by many MPs speaking of their constituents’ concerns. Some cheap politicking (from both benches) aside, the standard of debate was high and the tone respectful.

Whether one agrees with the outcome or not, the vote was a reassertion of Parliamentary sovereignty – a message to the executive, but also to the United States, that in the United Kingdom it is with Parliament, not the Prime Minister, that ultimate power resides. Indeed, many MPs spoke of this as a retreat from British presidentialism and a return to the PM being primus inter pares.

It is now unthinkable that Cameron would disregard Parliament’s wishes. Likewise, his deference to the Commons and his claim to have listened further entrenches the precedent that any future Prime Minister would have to call a similar vote on military action.

In my view, reserve powers of Royal Prerogative should remain with the Executive in case a Prime Minster must act immediately before explaining himself or herself to the House. But it is now clear that any premeditated military action will rightly require the approval of Parliament.

The British constitution is something that has grown organically over the last thousand years. It has survived because it has evolved; its imperfections have been mitigated by its flexibility. This latest stage in its evolution has something to say of our present and of our past. It speaks to a country disillusioned with foreign interventions, war-weary and cautious of unknown consequences. But fundamentally it also reasserts an ancient British principle: Parliament is sovereign.

James Hallwood is associate director of The Constitution Society @jhallwood

"A message to the executive, but also to the United States, that in the United Kingdom it is with Parliament, not the Prime Minister, that ultimate power resides". Photograph: Getty Images.

James Hallwood is associate director of The Constitution Society @jhallwood

Getty Images.
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Labour tensions over pro-EU campaign grow

Andy Burnham warned Alan Johnson of danger of appearing part of the "establishment case". 

Compared to the Conservatives, Labour is remarkably united over the EU, with the entire shadow cabinet and 214 of its 231 MPs backing the party's In campaign. Only a handful have joined the rival Labour Leave group, though sources are confident that more, potentially including shadow ministers, will do so when David Cameron's renegotiation concludes. 

But there are notable tensions within the In campaign. At this week's shadow cabinet meeting, which received a presentation from pro-EU head Alan Johnson, Andy Burnham warned of electoral damage to Labour if it was part of the "establishment case" for staying in. Burnham emphasised the need for the party to differentiate itself from Cameron and business leaders, I'm told. Angela Eagle also spoke of her concern at the number of eurosceptic Labour supporters. 

Just as the SNP surged following the Scottish independence referendum, so some shadow cabinet members believe Ukip could do so after the EU vote. One told me of his fear that those Labour supporters who voted Out would make "the transition" to voting for Farage's party. Ukip finished second in 44 of Labour's seats at the last election and helped the Tories win marginals off the opposition. 

Among Labour's pro-Europeans, the fear is that the party's campaign will be "half-hearted". Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing eurosceptic (who some believe would have backed withdrawal had he not become leader), struggles to express enthusiasm for remaining In. Speaking to the New Statesman, former shadow Europe minister Emma Reynolds warned: 

"The British public will expect the Labour Party to have a clear position. And we do have a clear position and that's that we're going to campaign to stay in the EU. Trying to fudge the issue or hedge your bets is not going to go down well with the British public. Of course we need to talk to people about all aspects of the EU, and that will involve talking to people about immigration, but there isn't a 'maybe' on the ballot paper it's a binary choice between remain and leave. We have to be clear with people where we are because they won't thank us for being wishy-washy."

Labour's Brexiters draw comfort from the dearth of MPs campaigning for EU membership. Kate Hoey told me: "I have been genuinely surprised how few supposedly 'pro-EU' Labour MPs have been prepared to come out and speak publicly of their support for staying in. They know, as those of us campaigning on the Leave side know, that thousands and thousands of Labour supporters, all over the country, want to come out and they are not going to receive a great reception on the doostep". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.