The Insider

Why did Sunak sideline parliament over the Yemen bombing?

Parliamentary sanction for military action abroad is vital. The prime minister may regret striking Houthi targets without it 

January 17, 2024
An RAF aircraft taking off from Cyprus to join the US-led coalition to conduct air strikes against Houthi targets. UPI / Alamy Stock Photo
An RAF aircraft taking off from Cyprus to join the US-led coalition to conduct air strikes against Houthi targets. UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

Parliament was wrongly sidelined in the decision to bomb Houthi military targets in Yemen last week. If the bombing was a one off, and successful, then this probably doesn’t matter. But if we are at the start of a long military entanglement, it will be one of the bigger mistakes of the Sunak government.

The point about parliamentary sanction for military action abroad isn’t that it excuses the government from major foreign policy mistakes. But rather that it shares the responsibility and obliges opponents to say what they would do instead. 

Whatever your views on the Iraq conflict of 20 years ago, Tony Blair’s position was hugely strengthened by an explicit parliamentary vote of authorisation, supported by the Tory opposition. This made it hard for the Conservatives to disown the war when it became unpopular. 

In this case, the Houthi shelling of western maritime trade heading to and from the Suez Canal is an unanswerable breach of international law and an obvious move by revolutionary Iran, the Houthis’ paymasters, to destabilise the west. There would have been little difficulty securing cross-party support for the initial military action last week, conducted (on Britain’s part) by aircraft based a safe distance away in Cyprus. 

If the US was worried about losing the surprise factor for the Thursday night bombing—although it was hardly a surprise that it was considering such a move—then retrospective parliamentary endorsement could have been sought on Friday or thereafter. 

So what next? If the Houthi guerrilla action escalates, will there be more and more air strikes? Will Sunak participate in all and any further military action the US take? Britain was the only other power that engaged directly in last week’s action. Is it our intention to build a broader coalition—and if so, what will its policy be? What about other ways to curb Iranian support for both the Houthis and Hamas, including stronger sanctions? 

Maybe Sunak will seek explicit parliamentary sanction for any next military step and have answers to these questions as he inevitably faces more critics. But if he simply does the same again, maybe even claiming last time as a precedent for not seeking parliamentary sanction, then the band of those claiming they never supported the military policy will grow. And if a point comes where he does seek parliamentary authorisation because of the controversy, he could be seriously on the defensive.