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12 January 2024

Why Rishi Sunak was able to bypass parliament on strikes in Yemen

Despite long-standing debate over reform, MPs have no formal power over military intervention.

By George Eaton

For the first time since becoming Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak has authorised military intervention after the UK joined the US in launching air strikes against Houthi-linked targets in Yemen. The action, which drew on support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands, was triggered by continued Houthi attacks against international shipping in the Red Sea, through which around 15 per cent of global seaborne trade passes. 

Sunak has been criticised by the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru for not seeking parliamentary approval – but he had no legal requirement to do so. The right to deploy UK armed forces remains part of the Royal Prerogative – a power that the Prime Minister derives through the Crown rather than through parliament. 

Over the past two decades, there has been intermittent discussion of constitutional reform. After becoming prime minister in 2007, Gordon Brown proposed granting parliament the right to approve “significant non-routine” deployments of the armed forces but this principle was never enshrined in law. 

In 2011, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government stated that “since the events leading up to the deployment of troops in Iraq [in 2003], a convention exists that parliament will be given the opportunity to debate the decision to commit troops to armed conflict and, except in emergency situations, that debate would take place before they are committed”. 

MPs subsequently voted against military action in Syria in 2013 and in favour of strikes against Islamic State in Iraq in 2014 and in Syria in 2015. But throughout this period, parliament never acquired any formal power over armed intervention. 

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In 2016, the Cameron government stated that it would not be introducing new legislation on war powers “in order to retain the ability of this and future governments and the Armed Forces to protect the security and interests of the UK in circumstances that we cannot predict, and to avoid such decisions becoming subject to legal action”.

As evidence of this, Theresa May’s government in April 2018 authorised UK military strikes against Syrian government targets without prior parliamentary approval and without a subsequent vote. Britain had also previously deployed troops in Mali in 2013 without any debate or vote in parliament. 

In line with this, the government last night briefed the cabinet, Labour leader Keir Starmer, shadow defence secretary John Healey and the House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle but did not consult MPs. Sunak is expected to deliver a statement to the Commons – which had already concluded its business for the week – on Monday, but no vote is likely to be held. 

James Heappey, the armed forces minister, told Times Radio this morning: “The Prime Minister needs to make decisions such as these based on the military, strategic and operational requirements – that led to the timing. Obviously parliament is not scheduled to speak today, but there will be an opportunity when parliament returns for these things to be fully discussed and debated.”

MPs from across the House have expressed scepticism over the strikes against Houthi targets. The former Conservative minister Neil O’Brien tweeted: “Not necessarily against this but given our main interventions of the last 25 years have been failures, let’s be clear up front: what counts as success? Realistically, how far would we need to go to achieve this? How will we avoid being dragged into something we don’t want?”

In a preview of likely Labour divisions, John McDonnell tweeted: “There should be no military action without parliamentary approval. If we have learnt anything in recent years it’s that military intervention in the Middle East always has dangerous & often unforeseen consequences. There is a risk of setting the region alight.”

During his Labour leadership campaign in 2020, Keir Starmer proposed a “Prevention of Military Intervention Act”. In an appearance on The Andrew Marr Show in February of that year, he said: “I would pass legislation that said military action could be taken if first the lawful case for it was made, secondly there was a viable objective and thirdly you got the consent of the Commons.”

Starmer opposed the 2003 Iraq War as a “breach of international law”, and also voted against air strikes on Islamic State in Syria in 2015 (while stating they were legal).

On the strikes in Yemen, Starmer told BBC Breakfast this morning: “Yes, we are supporting this action. The Houthi attacks have been carried out now for some time in the Red Sea. It’s on commercial shipping – that’s civilians who are operating that commercial shipping. Not only is it disrupting trade and shipping but it’s putting civilian lives at risk and therefore we do support this action.

“I do want the Prime Minister obviously to make a statement to parliament as soon as possible because the scope, nature and extent of the operation needs to be explained. Now, obviously it’s not for me to disclose what’s been briefed to me. But I do think the public and parliament need to know, so that should happen. I’d also want a summary of the government’s legal position to be published, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem, I anticipate they will do that, but we do need that level of transparency and accountability”.

For Starmer, whose strategists regard being seen as credible on national security as a precondition of election victory, this is yet another opportunity to demonstrate how Labour has changed.

[See also: Taiwan’s “war and peace” election]

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