The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has hinted at a complex future for the war against Isis. Photo: Getty
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Foreign Secretary: the US legal basis for action in Syria “looks robust”

Today, parliament will vote on the UK using airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq. 

The House of Commons is to vote today on whether or not to use airstrikes against Islamic State (also known as Isis) in Iraq.

David Cameron has recalled parliament today to ask MPs’ approval to join the US in targeting the militant group.

The BBC’s Nick Robinson reports that it is very likely the vote will pass, because the three party leaders alongside their whips have ensured against a defeat in “minute detail”. This diligence comes a year after the Prime Minister’s damaging defeat in a vote on military action in Syria.

However, in spite of the likelihood of a win for the government, one difficulty remains. The government has only made the motion about intervention in Iraq, to help the Iraqi government, and will not be voting today to go into Syria. This is because there is a clear legal basis for the former, whereas the latter – under Bashar al-Assad’s regime – is more complicated.

It seems a precedent is emerging for the opposition to hold an effective veto when a British Prime Minister attempts to join in foreign wars, and it is thought that Labour will only vote in favour of  action unequivocally sanctioned by international law.

As the Labour MP Diane Abbott, who is one of a handful of MPs planning to vote against the motion, told the BBC’s Today programme this morning, “call me pernickety, but [military intervention] has to be legal”.

However, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, speaking on the same programme this morning, suggested that he does see a legal basis for attacking IS in Syria.

The US, which began its airstrikes against the extremists this week, has struck targets in Syria. It argues a legal justification of “collective self-defence”, which is a case that currently has uncertain status in international law.

Hammond, when asked whether he sees this action in Syria as legally sound, replied, “it looks robust to me.”

He said:

The US is already carrying out military operations in Syria. The first challenge is to push Isil out of Iraq. . .

Well, in the future is another question. . . We’d look at the circumstances at the time, if we felt we had some capability to contribute, and it [airstrikes in Syria] was needed. . . then we would certainly make the case for doing that if circumstances were right. . . It is clear that the US intervening in Syria is also able to do so on a legal basis on collective self-defence . . . it looks robust to me.

He added, “we’re absolutely not ruling anything out”, but insisted, “everyone understands very well that if there was any suggestion of going further than that [striking IS in Iraq], we [would go back to the Commons for another vote].”

For the few MPs – mainly Labour, but also some Tories ­– opposing military action or unsure about how to vote, the Foreign Secretary’s words will not be much comfort. A key argument deployed against intervening in foreign conflicts is that it quickly becomes difficult to extract oneself once it’s begun. And Hammond’s words hint at a war that will only get bigger and take longer. Indeed, he said that, if necessary, Britain could send more Tornadoes to the area than the six it will send initially if the vote passes in the Commons today.

This, coupled with the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s suggestion in the House magazine that the campaign could be a “long haul” of “two to three years”, may make many politicians think twice before voting for military action this afternoon.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories