1 SUFFER JET MOVEMENT
Three days after the RAF Tornado jets returned to base from bombing a suspected Syrian chemical weapons factory, MPs return to their own base today as Parliament’s Easter recess ends. Having refused to recall Parliament last week to give prior authorisation for the air strikes, Theresa May will make a statement around 3.30pm and hopes to then secure an emergency debate to allow one long discussion.
The PM told us overnight that she will take the rare step of asking the Speaker for grant a so-called Standing Order 24 (‘SO24’ in the jargon) debate. Labour suspects that’s an attempt to avoid a substantive, binding vote because SO24s are normally on a vaguely-worded motion such as ‘This House has considered the matter of [RAF airstrikes on Syria]’.
Given that there are likely to be enough Labour MPs who would defy their leadership and support the Government to win a majority, it’s baffling why No.10 appear to be avoiding a more specific motion. Of course, it’s perfectly possible there could be a fresh motion today or tomorrow, this is a very fluid situation and we may have to wait for a Business Statement to tell us more.
The procedural row risks distracting from the PM’s central case that this military action was constitutionally, legally and politically in order because it was aimed at allieviating humanitarian suffering. She makes that case strongly in the Sun, referring to “children gasping for life as chemicals choke their lungs, the air around them thick with the toxic smell of chlorine”.
A draft of the Attorney General’s legal advice will be published later. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve admitted on the BBC this morning that self-defence and/or UN authorisation were the more traditional legal grounds for military action. Asked if relying on humanitarian grounds was controversial, he replied: “That’s quite right”.
But Grieve also pointed out that similar grounds were used to authorise action in Kosovo and the original no-fly-zones in Iraq. Both operations were opposed by one J.Corbyn at the time. Corbyn’s MPs will want to know if it is now Labour policy to say relying on human suffering is an illegal basis for military action - and if the Shadow Cabinet has approved the shift. “Even the Kosovo test, which is not universally accepted, is certainly not met as far as I can tell in this case,” Shadow Attorney General Shami Chakrabarti told Today.
2. EVIDENCE TEST
The counterpoint to the PM’s op-ed in the Sun is Jeremy Corbyn’s own article in the Guardian declaring ’diplomacy, not bombing, is the way to end Syria’s agony’. The Labour leader has been making clear he would not vote to authorise military action like last week’s, claiming there was a lack of evidence as to who was responsible for the chemical attack.
When I interviewed Corbyn in late 2015, soon after the Commons approved RAF action in Syria, I was struck by just how angry and “appalled” he was at the sound of MPs cheering after the vote – and after Hilary Benn’s own speech urging intervention. “Sorry, we were voting to send bombers in to bomb targets, putting servicemen and women at risk, civilians at risk, you can’t cheer when you’re going to war. That is 1914 Jingoism, that is past.” Back then Benn and Corbyn previewed their different stances in that week’s PLP meeting, with Benn winning a rapturous reception. Corbyn is expected to addresses the PLP tonight, but will the mood be different? (The PLP is due to meet at 6pm, so Corbyn could still be on the frontbench in the debate).
In 2015, many Labour MPs appeared to be making amends for the Commons vote two years earlier when Ed Miliband led opposition to intervention. To mark HuffPost UK’s Christmas appeal for Syrian refugees, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt told me last year that the 2013 vote was a ‘green light’ to Assad. But he conceded that public opinion (as now) was on Labour’s side. “Nine out of ten of the letters I received as a minister and as a constituency MP said ‘don’t touch this with a bargepole, don’t do this’. The British people said very clearly don’t get involved. I thought we should.”
On the issue of evidence, Corbyn may or may not welcome this morning’s words from Lord West, former Admiral and security minister. He told the Today programme he was unconvinced by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s claims that a Syrian helicopter had been behind the chemical attack. West (who accidentally referred to Assad as ‘Saddam’) said it made no sense for Assad to poison people when he was on the verge of winning, and suggested it was Islamic rebels who were responsible. “It leaves me with some very real concerns…we know they’ve [the rebels] used chlorine in the past”. “It’s in their interest to make us respond”.
Note too that Corbyn told Andrew Marr yesterday he still wanted ‘incontrovertible evidence’ that Putin was responsible for the Salisbury nerve agent attack. This was despite National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill (see below) taking the unprecedented step last week to reveal to Nato that the UK’s intelligence was that Russian agents had been targeting door handles with novichoks. Can evidence of direction and intent ever be ‘incontrovertible’? Or will the balance of probabilities be good enough for the Labour leader? There’s one blog that’s being shared by some in Labour overnight: ‘the anti-imperialism of idiots’.
3. POWER PLAY
Corbyn is demanding a ‘War Powers Act’ to put down in legislation the convention that’s existed since Blair and the 2003 Iraq vote, that Parliament should be consulted on military action. That convention allows for exceptions in relation to emergencies and operational secrecy. Critics will argue that neither applied last week, given Trump removed all element of surprise with his Tweets. Katy Budge, a former head of constitutional policy at the Cabinet Office, blogged for HuffPost that there was a strong constitutional requirement on May to consult Parliament (the ‘Cabinet Manual’ specifies it). The PM could try to buy off rebel Tories by promising to deliver on William Hague’s 2011 pledge to enshrine the convention in law.
The other big issue is whether the UK actually has a strategy at all for Syria, and – more widely - whether our National Security Council process has indeed learned the lessons of Iraq. The Chilcot report was published nearly two years ago but it was only last month that the new National Security Capability Review was published, making Government processes ‘Chilcot-compliant’ (including ‘reasonable challenge’).
Those of us who covered Chilcot (and Butler and Hutton) remember that the current National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill was himself among the cast list back in 2002/3. As Chilcot’s report highlights, Sedwill was Jack Straw’s private secretary at the time when No10 asked the Foreign Office a straight question “Does Iraq possess WMD?” In his emailed reply on 2 September, 2002, Sedwill’s note stated: “Yes. Iraq is still hiding weapons of mass destruction in a range of locations.” Sedwill was also attached to UNSCOM weapons inspectors from 1996 to 1998. In many ways, I suspect MPs would like to ask him as many questions as the PM today.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Further proof of America’s racial profiling came with this viral video this weekend of two black men arrested in a Starbucks – because they sat in the coffee shop without ordering anything. The Starbucks CEO has issued an apology.
4. UNFIT TWIT
Corbyn told Marr that May’s Syria strikes looked like ‘policy made up by Twitter…and we don’t want that’. His charge that May was simply waiting for ‘instructions’ from Donald Trump is sure to be repeated today and Corbyn could well seize on the extraordinary interview given by former FBI director James Comey overnight.
Comey has a memoir to flog (and Trump has called him a ‘slimeball’), but still his words make very uncomfortable reading for the PM. “I don’t think he’s medically unfit to be president. I think he’s morally unfit to be president…A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it, that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds.” Our US site has the full story.
5. WINDRUSH PUSH
In case anyone had forgotten, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting starts in London today. Before the Syria and Salisbury events of late, the PM had been planning to make this a major post-Brexit style ‘global Britain’ event, telling the Cabinet it would be the biggest ever summit on UK soil. So it’s all the more embarrassing that Downing Street has rejected a formal diplomatic request from Barbados to discuss fears over of deporting ‘Windrush generation’ migrants to the UK.
Anger is growing over the uncertain status of potentially thousands of British citizens. The Guardian has been doing sterling work revealing how some pensioners who came to the UK to work in essential services in the 1950s and 1960s are being denied access to state healthcare, losing their jobs and even being threatened with deportation. Minister Caroline Nokes used a blog in The Voice to insist she was ‘working hard’ to give all Windrush migrants the right documents. Sounds like they will have to work harder.