Theresa May earns cold reception in U.K. Parliament over Syria attacks


After ordering British forces into action in Syria, Prime Minister Theresa May faced criticism from lawmakers on Monday, with many of them seeming to resent being bypassed over the decision, more than the strikes themselves.

Speaking in Parliament, Mrs. May argued that the “limited, targeted and effective” attack had sent a vital signal that the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated by the international community.

But the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong critic of Western military intervention, questioned the justification of the strikes under international law, telling Mrs. May that she was accountable to Parliament and “not to the whims of the U.S. president.”

Several senior members of Mr. Corbyn’s party supported the principle of intervention over Syria, however, underscoring the divisions between many Labour lawmakers and their leader on several issues, including foreign policy.

With the missiles already having been delivered, there was a limit to what Britain’s Parliament could do about a decision that was made while lawmakers were on their Easter vacation.

But by making their voices heard, members of Parliament made clear the potential political risks to Mrs. May, who does not have a clear parliamentary majority, were she to repeat military action without consultation with lawmakers.

Legally, the British prime minister was not obliged to consult Parliament before ordering the military action, but the recent convention has been to do so. In 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair persuaded Parliament to support the invasion of Iraq, a decision that has cast a shadow over British politics, and the country’s willingness to intervene abroad, ever since.

In 2013, when David Cameron, then the prime minister, asked Parliament for permission to strike Syria, lawmakers refused. That decision had important international ramifications, influencing President Barack Obama’s decision to pull back from military strikes and raising questions about Britain’s reliability as a military partner to the United States.

“I think warnings are being issued,” said Daniel Kenealy, a lecturer in public policy at Edinburgh University, adding that, lawmakers “are saying, ‘Don’t do this again.’”

The anger about the lack of consultation suggested that Mrs. May might have miscalculated by not recalling Parliament before ordering strikes. “I think that on the substantive issue — whether there should be strikes and leaving aside the procedures — I am sensing that she would have” won the vote, Mr. Kenealy said.

Though Mrs. May claimed that she needed to move quickly to order the strikes, several critics pointed out that there would have been time for lawmakers to have been recalled last week.

While supporting the decision to strike Syria, Kenneth Clarke, a former cabinet minister and member of Mrs. May’s Conservative Party, said that “once President Trump had announced to the world what he was proposing a widespread debate was taking place everywhere — including many M.P.s in the media — but no debate in Parliament.”

Mr. Clarke called for the creation of a cross-party commission to deliberate on the role of lawmakers in authorizing military action.

Julian Lewis, a fellow Conservative lawmaker, who is the chairman of the House of Commons defense select committee, appeared to question the strategy behind the attacks, saying that Britain’s air force should not be allowed to become the air arm of the jihadist opposition forces in Syria.

The government’s justification of the action on humanitarian grounds was also under the spotlight, with some lawmakers arguing that it was a dubious basis for action under international law.

Mr. Corbyn called for legislation, under a War Powers Act, to require prime ministers to consult lawmakers before launching most types of military action.

However, his criticism of Mrs. May was outdone by one of his own lawmakers, Laura Smith, who said that she had been “trying to follow President Trump’s tweets,” had found it “extremely difficult to keep track if he was for military action or against military action” and asked Mrs. May “at what point the president instructed her that military action should be taken.”

“At no point at all,” replied Mrs. May, who glared back before adding, “I took this decision because it was in the national interest.”