The United Kingdom’s weakened war prerogative convention

So, I was wrong: Prime Minister May didn’t feel bound to hold a parliamentary vote before ordering air strikes against the Syrian regime.

I expected that, in light of the August 2013 precedent when the UK Commons voted against air strikes against the Syrian regime (see my Parliamentary Affairs article), the scope of the British convention on consulting the lower house would have included these latest air strikes.

That’s evidently not the case.

The contrast between Cameron’s failed August 2013 vote and May’s decision not to hold a vote is quite striking. Cameron proceeded with significant caution, and he backed down immediately when the Commons voted against his motion. May is accepting notable political risk by circumventing the Commons, but there’s also a good chance she won’t face any consequences.

Come Monday, May will likely argue that she’s still acting within the parameters of the convention that gelled from 2003 to 2013-2014. There’s very little the opposition can do to punish her if they disagree, so her interpretation will stand.

(Update: May argues that her actions fell within the convention, given that the operation consisted of an emergency.)

But that doesn’t mean the convention has been left unchanged.

Looking back at Cameron’s statements from 2014, this one stands out: “it is important that a Prime Minister and a Government reserve the right to act swiftly without consulting the Commons in advance in some specific circumstances—for instance, if we had to prevent an immediate humanitarian catastrophe or, indeed, secure a really important, unique British interest.”

In explaining her decision, May echoes the exceptions Cameron highlighted:

“The speed with which we are acting is essential in co-operating with our partners to alleviate further humanitarian suffering”

“I have done so because I judge this action to be in Britain’s national interest.”

May is framing her action as a response to chemical weapon use, a humanitarian catastrophe, a British national interest, and an emergency. In that sense, she might be said to be acting within the narrow limits that Cameron outlined in 2014.

Yes, the convention will still apply to the deployment of ground forces on combat operations or long-term air/sea combat missions. But its hard to see how future governments could not use this precedent to avoid a vote on limited air strikes or strikes from the sea.

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