“Giving Parliament the final say over warfare politicises the war; it means that possibly sensitive intelligence has to be made public; it removes any element of surprise, delays decision-making and, in a host of other ways, makes the effective conduct of military force extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible. Now even if you think all this may be a good thing, I would hope that you would agree it also has a devastating impact on our ability to project power for the good of the world. Diplomacy without arms is like music without an orchestra.”
So wrote James Gray on this site last summer, arguing that the executive, not the legislature, should decide when to send Britain’s armed forces into action – in short, when to wage war. The nub of his case is that is for Ministers to act and for MPs then to hold them to account. The same case has also been put by Jesse Norman.
“If Parliament itself authorises such action in advance, what then? It gives up part of its power of scrutiny; it binds Members in their own minds, rather than allowing them the opportunity to assess each Government decision on its own merits and circumstances; and instead of being forced to explain and justify their actions, Ministers can always take final refuge in saying, “Well, you authorised it.” Thus, far from strengthening Parliament, it weakens it and the Government: it weakens the dynamic tension between the two sides from which proper accountability and effective policy must derive.”
Today, Philip Hammond is arguing that a Commons vote is not required before a thousand British troops are sent to Libya, because their mission will be a training exercise rather than a combat mission. But those who have been following developments in Libya, especially the expansion of ISIS into the country, and Ministers’ intentions will be in little doubt that the Government wants more intervention than a mere training mission. Michael Fallon told the Commons on Monday that it is not contemplating the deployment of ground troops there “at the moment”.
As matters stand, this site is against such a development, because it is impossible to see what benefit such deployment would bring without a credible plan, and there is no sign of one whatoever. Backbench Conservatives will want to be alert to mission creep.
None the less, the constitutional case put by Gray and Norman and others is right. It follows that the Government should order group troops into Libya to fight if it so decides, and that the Commons should then question its actions, debate them and vote on them. That is the right way round.
Those who are anxious about the executive being empowered to act in such a way should remember that though the Commons voted for air strikes against Syria last autumn, it voted against them in the summer of 2013. MPs made the right call both times.
In short, David Cameron may well want to send ground troops to fight in Libya. (He will have been stung by the criticism of his record there by the American President who he is hosting this week.) However, the Commons would halt any such deployment in its tracks. Jeremy Corbyn would oppose it. So would a big tranche of Tory MPs.
The lack of a proper working Conservative majority is bad for the country as a rule. But it may not be in this case. We can return to the constitutional practice that applied before Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq without a substantial risk of being sucked into war in Libya.