A suspected chlorine gas attack on the Syrian city of Douma has left 70 dead and 500 more injured, and means that once again the question of what, if anything, can be done about Bashar al-Assad’s regime is being discussed both at Westminster and around the world.
Donald Trump has warned “animal Assad” and his allies that there will be “a price to pay” for the attack. He and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, have already agreed to “coordinate a strong, joint response” to the attack, but what that means in reality is not yet clear, and what the British response will be even less so. The government has already walked back one statement suggesting that there will be some kind of military response.
Haunting minds in Downing Street is David Cameron’s 2013 Commons defeat over intervening in Syria. Writing in the Telegraph, Johnny Mercer, the Conservative MP for has one solution to that problem: Theresa May simply should respond without a parliamentary vote. He calls asking the legislature a “uniquely useless” method of conducting foreign policy.
The truth is that in most democracies, the right to go to war is one that is held by the legislature, rather than the executive. Nonetheless, Mercer is half-right in that under the United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution, the recent(ish) convention that Parliament weighs in on whether to go to war isn’t worth the paper it’s not printed on. If May wants to do so, she doesn’t need to to consult parliament before committing British troops.
However, that debate, while constitutionally interesting, is almost certainly redundant: one of the ironies of British politics and Syria is that the parliamentary arithmetic has got easier as the case for intervention has got harder. There is a significant group of Labour MPs who bitterly regret not voting with the government in 2013 and that buffer of 30 to 50 MPs means that if May wants some kind of military response to this attack, she has the votes for it.