LONDON — Donald Trump loomed large when British MPs debated strikes against Syria.
The U.S. president’s influence on British politics was on clear display Monday as U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May set out her defense of Britain’s involvement in the American-led operation this weekend.
Throughout a three-hour debate in the House of Commons, May was repeatedly forced to deny she had been dragged to war on the “whim” of her American ally. The discussion, though, revealed more about the fractious state of British politics than about May’s decision to respond to the Syrian leadership’s chemical weapons attack on Douma.
Given the decision to join the U.S. and France in air strikes had already been taken, Monday’s debate was as much about future principle — and the prime minister’s own authority — as about action.
From a legal point of view, U.K. prime ministers do not need parliamentary approval for military action but several precedents, dating back to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, have made avoiding a vote politically problematic.
Despite considerable pressure for a vote in the run up to strikes, May survived Monday’s debate unscathed — strengthened even — after seeing off a symbolic late-night vote forced by the Scottish National Party by 314 votes to 36. A second debate on the military intervention pushed by Labour will be held Tuesday, but without a meaningful vote.
After a weekend of taunts from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — for whom the U.S. president is both a populist inspiration and a useful political bogeyman — May addressed the issue in her opening statement. “We have not done this because President Trump asked us to do so,” May told MPs. “We have done it because we believed it was the right thing to do.”
May’s anger grew throughout the debate as MPs repeatedly brought up the insult.
A steady stream of Labour MPs rose in support of the prime minister and in defiance of their leader.
After being asked “at what point the president instructed her to take military action,” a clearly furious May responded: “The answer is at no point at all. I took this decision.”
Conservative backbencher Andrew Percy said the allegation May had taken her orders from Washington was “a smear — disgusting — and insulting to our troops.”
May agreed. But so too did many of those sat on the opposition benches behind the Labour leader. Throughout the afternoon session, a steady stream of Labour MPs rose in support of the prime minister and in defiance of their leader.
Longstanding Corbyn critic Chris Leslie summed up the mood of a sizable minority of Labour MPs, pointedly asking the PM whether “those who would turn a blind eye, who would do nothing in pursuit of some moral high ground, should also be held accountable for once today.”
The raw acrimony on display — as much within the Labour ranks as Tory-on-Labour — showed the angry, divided state of U.K. politics in the wake of last year’s general election and the rise of Corbyn’s populist opposition, as well as the scars from the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Corbyn’s success securing the Labour Party leadership in 2015 owes much to his absolutist opposition to war, his own advisers believe.
His better-than-expected performance in the general election last year secured his leadership, but locked in a continuing division in his parliamentary party, particularly over foreign policy.
But while Trump is held up as evidence of May’s weakness, the irony for the Labour leader is that when it comes to foreign policy, Corbyn’s supporters have more in common with the U.S. president’s anti-interventionist fan base than they care to admit.
Right and left vs. the centrists
As in the U.S., opposition to foreign intervention in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya unites the populist right and left against the “centrist” voices of much of the political and foreign policy establishment, which supported the U.S.-led intervention in Syria on Saturday.
Corbyn’s closest aides believe, like Trump, they have public opinion on their side, whatever the political outrage directed their way in Westminster. That anger was on full display Monday as the Conservative Party united behind the prime minister, rising to defend her decision not to recall parliament for prior approval of the strikes.
Following the first of two debates on Syria, the government announced there would not be a second day of parliamentary scrutiny on the issue — thereby avoiding the prospect of a vote. The decision, announced by House of Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom, was condemned by opposition MPs but appears unlikely to trouble her own side, many of whom backed the government’s right to launch military strikes without prior parliamentary approval during the heated debate Monday.
Labour MPs supportive of Corbyn cited a poll published before Monday’s debate showing public opposition to the airstrikes, with 40 percent against British involvement and 36 percent in favor. They did not mention a second poll carried out after the attack and published by Sky News on Monday afternoon which found support had jumped in the wake of the strikes, with 49 percent now believing they were right compared to 37 percent opposed.
May as Clinton, Corbyn as Trump
During the U.S. presidential election, Trump was able to pick up easy political points by voicing opposition to U.S. foreign policy orthodoxy, from Iraq to Russia.
Corbyn and his team now hope to do the same — with May cast as a British Hillary Clinton, out of touch with a public fed up of foreign wars.
In the Commons Monday, Corbyn painted the Syrian civil war as the consequence of a global power struggle, which military intervention only fueled. It was, he said, a “grotesque spectacle of a wider geopolitical battle being waged by proxy.”
On Sunday, Corbyn went further, doubling down on his revolutionary foreign policy platform. “Ever since 2001 we’ve had all these wars,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “We’ve had a growth of terrorism, we’ve had a growth of instability. Surely we’ve got to start looking at things in a different way.”
Some of May’s closest supporters in parliament, however, claim the prime minister is a harder target for Corbyn than Clinton was for Trump.
“She isn’t gung-ho,” one minister said. “She isn’t David Cameron or Tony Blair. She is not demonstrative like Macron or Trump, but she is considered and gets on with the job. You saw that and I think this stuff actually plays to her strengths.”
In her public statements following the airstrikes on Saturday morning, May stressed that she has no intention of becoming embroiled in the Syrian civil war — however appalling the fighting becomes. This weekend’s intervention was about the use of chemical weapons alone.
“We needed to intervene rapidly to alleviate further indiscriminate humanitarian suffering,” she told MPs Monday.
“This was not about intervening in a civil war. And it was not about regime change. It was about a limited, targeted and effective strike that sought to alleviate the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their use.”
May also defended not asking parliament to authorize the strikes — and refused to rule out doing so again should Bashar al-Assad deploy chemical weapons on civilians again.
“It is parliament’s responsibility to hold me to account for such decisions — and parliament will do so. But it is my responsibility as prime minister to make these decisions. And I will make them,” she said.
That was enough for Conservative MPs — and a good deal of those sitting opposite. But far from dispiriting the Labour leader, his supporters believe this is yet further proof of Westminster losing touch.