'On the gravestone of Robin Cook, leader of the House of Commons at the time of the invasion of Iraq, is an inscription: “I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of parliament to decide on war.”
It wasn’t true, as was confirmed last night. The evolution of the convention that the House of Commons should approve military action is more complicated than most people, including Cook, realised.
Legally, the decision to go to war is taken by the Queen acting through and on the advice of her ministers. It is a decision of her government, which derives its authority from its command of a majority of MPs in the Commons, but it does not require a vote of MPs beforehand.
Clement Attlee did not ask the House to vote to join the US in the Korean war in 1950, although Winston Churchill, who supported it as leader of the opposition, argued that the prime minister should have done. “It is better to have a division so that everyone can know how the House of Commons stands and in what proportion,” Churchill said, despite the danger that a “handful of dissenters” might create “false impressions” abroad that the country was disunited.
Anthony Eden did not put Suez to a vote. Margaret Thatcher didn’t ask for a vote before dispatching the task force to retake the Falklands, although parliament was recalled on a Saturday when the Labour opposition led by Michael Foot urged her on. John Major did not have a vote on the Gulf War in 1991, although 57 MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn, recorded their opposition by the procedural device of voting against a motion to adjourn.
Then came Tony Blair and Robin Cook. Cook was foreign secretary when Saddam Hussein defied the UN by expelling its inspectors from Iraq in February 1998. For the first time, the prime minister agreed to put the question of the use of force to an explicit vote of MPs on a government motion. It was carried by 493 votes to 25, and Saddam backed down, but Blair regretted giving the 25, again including Corbyn, the chance to express their opposition. He would not do so again until 2003.
When Saddam again ended cooperation with UN inspectors at the end of 1998, Blair refused to give the Commons a new vote, and resorted to a procedural ambush to prevent Corbyn and others voting on a motion of their own. British jets joined the US air force in a four-day bombing campaign called Operation Desert Fox.'
Read more: Theresa May avoided a vote in parliament on Syrian air strikes because she knew she would lose
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