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Vince’s three questions on Syrian airstrikes

April 18, 2018 10:09 AM

Vince Cable

In Tuesday's debate on the Syrian airstrikes, Vince raised three questions. Here is his speech in full, complete with interventions.

My approach to this question was well captured by some of the independent-minded Labour Back Benchers yesterday, and particularly by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) when she said "If only the Prime Minister had asked it of me, I would have been inclined to support her." The Prime Minister did not ask, and as a result she missed a significant opportunity to build consensus in this place and support in the country. She has clearly received other advice.

I was very struck in the middle of last week by the avalanche of editorials-notably one by the Prime Minister's former colleague, the editor of the Evening Standard-saying that of course Parliament must not debate this issue. It had nothing to do with high-minded constitutional principles or military secrecy; the argument was, "We might lose, and if we lose that will be terrible for our prestige vis-à-vis France." There are of course more serious arguments, which have been aired and which were put by the Prime Minister, on the grounds of secrecy and national security. I respect them. I am a Privy Counsellor and have benefited from the briefings that have been available.

We are here on an issue of trust. I like to think that in this House and in the country we have progressed beyond the poisonous legacy of the Iraq war. We are not in the position of the United States, where the President is at war with his own intelligence agencies. We have trust and should have trust in the advice that is given. If the Prime Minister had any doubt about that, she should have been reassured three to four weeks ago when she came to the House to address the Salisbury question and said, "Look, there are things I cannot explain. There are facts and information." What happened was that almost everybody on this side of the House-nationalists, Liberal Democrats and Labour-except for those on the Opposition Front Bench, took her word, and that was as it should have been. She could have done that on this occasion, but because she has chosen to ignore a practice established by Mrs Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron-admittedly in difficult circumstances-we are now in the position of having to talk about legislative remedies for something that should have been accepted on the basis of trust.

Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire) (Con)

I do not understand the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's argument. He has admitted that there are circumstances that would mean that the House could not be fully informed. The House would therefore be having a debate and making a decision that, by definition, would be ill informed. What is the sense in that?

Sir Vince Cable

Of course, not all information could be made available. That is why having trust in the Prime Minister, which I do as an individual, and in our security services and military, as I do, are absolutely imperative. If that were in place, the House would have a mature debate on the principle. I think that the Prime Minister would have had a significant majority had she followed that path.

Mr Nigel Evans

When the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the coalition Government, he made decisions as part of that Government. He is now part of the legislature. Does he not accept that there is a distinction? He says that he trusts the Prime Minister, and surely that is what today's debate is all about.

Sir Vince Cable

I am also well aware that I have had to fight my way back into the legislature and I am no longer a member of the Government. When I was a member of the Government, I supported military intervention in this place. I think that, on that occasion, Parliament got it wrong. I also think that it got it wrong over the Iraq war, but the process was a necessary discipline. It is a pity that we are now having to talk about legislative remedies when there was a perfectly good and sound convention that successive Prime Ministers were following, but this one is not.

That is all I wish to say about the process issues, but I want to raise several specific questions of substance that I do not think were dealt with in yesterday's debate. The first, which was raised by me and the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), is whether this is a one-off operation, or a continuous series of strikes for which we need to be prepared. That is not an academic question. A lot of open-source material suggests that the number of chemical attacks in Syria is far greater than the number-five, I think-that was cited yesterday. The White Helmets, the Syrian human rights organisation, has come up with the figure of 213 in the last five years. In other words, every week the Syrian armed forces are using chemical weapons. Low-level divisional commanders are using crude chemicals, notably chlorine, and it strikes me as being perfectly plausible that they will do so again.

The question, then, is this: what is the threshold at which we once again intervene? Is it any use of chemical weapons? Is it a certain number of deaths? Is it the indignation of the President of the United States when he has seen something on television? What is the threshold for continuing involvement in this struggle? This is all the more reason why we need parliamentary authorisation for continuing action.

My second question, which relates indirectly to that, is about the role of the President of the United States. I regard the United States as an ally and a friendly country with which we have long and strong bonds, but I think that we all have problems with a President who is erratic, capricious and regarded with open contempt by the public officials who have worked with him, and who even now, in the middle of this crisis, seems to regard President Assad and President Putin as less of a problem than Stormy Daniels and Robert Mueller.

The question is, in our continuing dealings with the major power of the western world, where do we go? We know that in the last few days the President has introduced into his Administration John Bolton, who is absolutely open about the fact that if there are further strikes he will wish to include Iranian targets-we know that will inflame the issue in relation to Israel-and who wants to derail the agreement on nuclear weapons with Iran. I would like some assurance at the end of the debate that the British Government are holding fast with France and the rest of the European Union in honouring and supporting that agreement, and are not being over-influenced by the American Administration.

My third and final question relates to Russia. In her statement, the Prime Minister linked Salisbury with the chemical weapons attack. It is very striking that while we have followed the United States-perhaps rightly-in military action, we have not followed the Americans in imposing penal sanctions on oligarchs and stock market dealings. The impact is blatantly obvious. The Russians must be asking themselves, "Why haven't they done it? Are they afraid of retaliation? Are there vested interests in the City?" That is the kind of question to which we need an answer.

We should have had answers to all those questions last week. I hope that we will improve the processes of the House to ensure that they are given in future.