Parliament doesn’t decide yet, but sort of does

Parliamentary opposition has forced the British government to water down a motion seeking approval for military action against the Assad regime in Syria. This is a big deal, given in theory Parliament has no role in decisions about the international use of force. As the BBC’s Nick Robinson put it, “It is without modern precedent for a prime minister to lose control of his foreign policy, let alone decisions about peace and war. That, though, is what has happened in the past 24 hours”.

It reinforces a growing shift in the constitutional balance of power that began when Tony Blair was forced to allow a vote before the Iraq invasion in 2003. Cameron saw no downside copying Blair over Libya in 2011. The Libyan action was backed by the UN Security Council, so Parliament voted unanimously to support it. By treating Blair’s unusual act as a precedent, however, Cameron helped cement a new convention. Since the entire royal prerogative, from which the authority to direct the use of force stems, is a conventional power, it changes when the conventions around it change. It doesn’t matter that promises by Gordon Brown, William Hague, and Cameron himself failed to result in new legislation guaranteeing Parliament a vote on any future military actions. As Cameron’s u-turn over Syria shows, he is bound by the new norms of British foreign policy making whether he likes it or not. What we have witness over the last 24 hours in British politics is nothing short of the birth of a new parliamentary prerogative.

Even with legal advice confirming any strike would be in line with international law, and the JIC stating it is highly likely there has been a chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime in Damascus, it is unclear MPs will back the use of force. In which case, Britain simply won’t be able to take part.

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