The suspected poison gas attack in Syria that killed dozens of people at the weekend continues to send shockwaves through Westminster. Speaking on an official trip to Sweden, the Prime Minister said she ‘utterly’ condemned the ‘barbaric’ attack. As for what action to take, Theresa May said that if it was confirmed as the doing of President Bashar al-Assad both his regime and its backers, including Russia, must be ‘held to account’. May said Britain is ‘discussing with our allies what action is necessary’.
But just as news of a chemical attack in Syria comes with a sense of déjà vu, so does the UK response. Ever since MPs rejected David Cameron’s call to intervene in 2013, inaction has been the best word to describe the British policy. Even if May were to win a Commons vote on military action, it’s not clear what options to intervene in Syria are left. Writing in the Telegraph, Johnny Mercer, the Conservative backbencher, urges the Prime Minister to be bold and cut out a vote in Parliament – ‘a uniquely useless way of conducting foreign policy’ that ‘in almost one action emasculates us on the world stage’. With the US and France threatening a ‘joint, strong response’, will May take his advice and join Britain’s allies? That Boris Johnson emphasised how the UK, the US and France must keep in close touch in a call with the acting US Secretary of State John Sullivan reveals that there is a certain nervousness in Whitehall that the UK might be left behind if Trump and Macron decide to act.
If Britain does join in, May ought not expect any support from the Leader of the Opposition. After an anonymous Labour spokesperson issued a limp statement on Sunday night suggesting that ‘anyone found responsible’ for using chemical weapons should be ‘brought to justice’, Jeremy Corbyn today dodged a question on whether Assad could possibly be to blame. But previous experience suggests that even if Assad is found to be the most likely culprit, Corbyn’s Labour won’t be in a rush to hold him to account. Whatever course of action May chooses for the country, she had best be prepared to go it alone.