16 Apr 2018

MPs could have three Syria debates

Parliament could end up with three debates on Syria and related matters under plans being discussed behind the scenes in Westminster.

The Speaker received so many requests for emergency debates that he is said by some to be pondering granting two of them. Some speculate that the government could then add its own debate in its own time on Tuesday or Wednesday. The topics could vary with the first debate, today, being on the military action on Syria. The second one could be on the narrower procedural matter of whether Parliamentary approval should have been sought and should always be sought. The third possible debate being talked about would be a government one on the dangers and practice of chemical warfare.

Quite what is going on isn’t clear yet but the government seems resolved on one thing: it is not seeking a retrospective vote approving the specific military action taken in the early hours of Saturday morning. One Whitehall source said “the Chief Whip is allergic to Commons votes.” One minister said “we’d win it easily” but “we keep running away from Parliament”.

It would be possible to push the emergency debate (under Standing Order 24, a so-called SO24 debate) to a vote but the motion is a tame one saying that the Commons takes note of action and so it would be hard to inspire dissident MPs to acts of rebellion over such a motion and the government would, in theory, be even less at risk than it might be from a conventional and sharply worded motion.

At Friday’s emergency Cabinet, only David Davis and Esther McVey called for Parliament to vote ahead of military action. Mr Davis has longstanding views on such things and the Work and Pensions Secretary emphasised how the attacks seemed to command little public support and a victory in the Commons might help with that.

So we don’t know how many debates there will be and whether there will be a vote at all. But the number of Tory MPs who would vote against the government’s action would likely be outweighed by the number of Labour MPs who would vote against their leader’s line against the attacks.

UPDATE:

A little more clarity has emerged. We are still waiting to hear exactly what The Speaker has decided about the unusually large number of debate requests and whether to grant a second one, but my guess is that the Leader of the House taking questions about a revised business statement (slotting in a new government debate tomorrow and shunting other business around) may substitute for the full-blown second emergency debate that had been considered.

So there may well be 2 debates. Today’s on a motion to “take note” (The Speaker chose an opposition member’s motion for balance because the PM was already having a government statement today) followed by the government’s “general debate” tomorrow which will also be a non-binding motion (“take note” or “consider”).

A substantial vote on a sharply worded motion specifically backing or criticising the government’s actions in over Syria will not happen today or tomorrow and you will hear a lot of MPs voicing their anger about that.

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