Many Conservatives opposed William Hague's Syria policy. I supported him. Some Conservatives and many non-Conservatives have condemned his presentation of the government's case and his handling of the vote as incompetent. Doubtless everyone can learn some lessons from that, but I do not consider any mistakes he made over that remotely close to a resigning matter.
Nonetheless, he should still resign. There are two reasons why:
- Every Parliamentary vote on military action must be a confidence matter for the sponsoring minister
- Every request by a minister for Parliamentary approval for killing people must be a resigning matter for the minister concerned
Let us take these points in turn.
First, what is the nature of a Parliamentary vote on military action? David Cameron and George Osborne have made much of the "unprecedented" nature of the government's seeking Parliamentary approval of military action. But what is really unprecedented here is not so much the seeking of Parliamentary approval but, rather, for the government to lose such a vote. What happens then? Constitutionally we have no modern precedent for this, so we must now develop one. Here's what I say.
A vote in Parliament on military action cannot possibly be any kind of constitutional requirement before launching military action. Military events move far too fast for Parliamentary pre-approval, often must be based partly on information it would be operationally or in security terms inappropriate to make public, and often must include an element of surprise that is incompatible with Parliamentary debates. This isn't a finely balanced point on which there could be a genuinely held position on the other side. The idea that military action must be pre-approved in any operational sense is simply absurd.
So if Parliamentary votes on military questions are not a matter of Parliament having any operational say, what are they? There seems to me to be only one sensible possibility. The government presents its military policy – its approach to an issue of defence or foreign policy that has a military aspect – and it asks Parliament whether it supports (has confidence in) the government's policy and the implementation of it by the sponsoring minister.
The sponsoring minister will not be the same in all cases. With the present Cabinet roles, I would suggest that the natural division is that if the policy in question relates to a military defence of a British territory, base, or similar asset, the sponsoring minister will be the Defence Secretary, whilst if the policy in question relates to the use of military force to promote a wider foreign policy goal (e.g. "global security") then the sponsoring minister is the Foreign Secretary.
So, in the case of the Syria vote I believe the correct interpretation of events is that, whatever the precise motion was, William Hague was asking Parliament to declare that it had confidence in him and in his policy with respect to the use of military force in Syria. To repeat: every such vote is a confidence vote. The government's losing such a vote means Parliament declared it had no confidence in the Foreign Secretary's Syria policy. Since he has lost the confidence of Parliament, Hague must resign.
The second important principle is this: whenever the sponsoring minister is asking Parliament for its support on a military matter, that minister is asking Parliament to support the killing of people. If you are going to ask for people to be killed, you should consider that they be killed a matter of such importance that if you are not supported you will resign. Otherwise, what are you saying? "I want some people killed, but it's not that important"?? If their being killed is not a resignation matter for you, you should not ask for their deaths.
That intrinsic "conscience" aspect here does not imply that every Parliamentary vote on military action should be a free vote. Virtually all military action matters should be three-line whips. If you are in the party of Government and you do not support your party on military action, you either need different leaders or to be in a different party. But for the sponsoring minister it should be something akin to a conscience matter. A failure to secure support for a request to kill people should always be a resignation matter.
The government lost the vote on its Syria policy. That military action was clearly a foreign policy, rather than defence policy matter, so Hague should resign. Not because he did anything wrong, but because he was not supported.
Perhaps someone will say: "This is all very well, and perhaps you are right, but that was not understood by either Parliament or the government at the time." If so, then let us have another vote, based on the correct understanding of what that vote is, constitutionally, about.