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12 April 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 9:04am

Taking military action in Syria would be a huge gamble for Theresa May

The bulk of the country is, at best, uneasy about joining in the US’ response to the suspected chemical weapons attack.

By Stephen Bush

I have a traffic light system for worrying about global events. If the story is not on the frontpage of the Financial Times at all, that is “green”: don’t worry, be happy. But if the FT’s splash is the same as everyone else’s, that’s “red”: start stocking up on tinned food.

Today’s FT splash is on Tesco’s £1bn profit margin, after the troubled chain turned itself around by selling off its vast megastores and focussing on fresh groceries and own-brand products. But the escalation in tension between the United States and Russia still makes it onto the paper’s frontpage – so call it an “amber” warning. Donald Trump has taken to Twitter to announce that “missiles are coming” in response to Russian warnings that any missile strike on Syria will be struck down.

Here at home, one red light for Theresa May is that her supporters club, aka the Daily Mail, has splashed on her decision to join the United States’ response to the suspected chemical weapons attack, but branded the move “May’s Great Gamble”. A Times/YouGov poll shows that the bulk of the country is, at best, uneasy about joining in on the attack.

The PM will avoid a Commons vote – though by my reckoning she would win it as there are enough Labour MPs who would defy the whip to negate any Conservative rebels – and instead meet with the cabinet this afternoon to decide what to do next.

As I wrote earlier this week, the convention that parliament votes on whether to go to war is just that: a convention, with no force in British law. Douglas Carswell has got himself and some other people excited about the 1701 Act of Settlement, which says that “this Nation be not obliged to ingage in any War for the Defence of any Dominions or Territories which do not belong to the Crown of England without the Consent of Parliament”  but the section in question has no force because it is designed only to come into effect when the monarch is not a native-born British citizen. (Doug, in case you were wondering: the Queen is a native-born citizen.)

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I wouldn’t expect the constitutional freedom of a Prime Minister to declare war to survive the first legislative session of a Corbyn government, but until then, the PM is free to do as he (or she) wishes. May’s gamble is that she is free, too, to bear responsibility for whatever consequences come Britain’s way.

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