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Sunak: It was necessary to strike Houthis at speed rather than recall Parliament

Rishi Sunak has defended his decision not to consult Parliament before approving RAF airstrikes against Houthi rebels, amid pleas to avoid escalation across the Middle East.

The Prime Minister said sometimes there is a need to act “decisively” and the Government must have the power to act in such emergencies.

He added he did not take such decisions “lightly” and Parliament is responsible for holding him to account for them.

Parliament recall
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle (Yui Mok/PA)

The Government does not require the consent of Parliament to deploy the armed forces, although a convention has emerged whereby MPs would have the opportunity to debate such a move prior to doing so – except in the event of an emergency.

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle last week said he was “happy to facilitate” a recall of Parliament “at any time”, but the Government made no such request.

After offering the Opposition’s support for “targeted” strikes, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said military action must be “underpinned by a clear strategy” and noted it is the role of the Commons to “ask the right questions”.

He asked Mr Sunak: “Can he confirm that he stands by the parliamentary convention where possible military interventions by the UK Government – particularly if they are part of a sustained campaign – should be brought before this House?

“Scrutiny is not the enemy of strategy. Because while we back the action taken last week these strikes still do bring risk. We must avoid escalation across the Middle East.”

Mr Sunak replied: “I can assure him that it was necessary to strike at speed, as he acknowledged, to protect the security of these operations.

“That is in accordance with the convention and I remain committed to that convention and would always look to follow appropriate processes and procedures and also act in line with precedent – where he will know there have been strikes in 2015 and 2018 where a similar process as to this was followed.”

SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn asked Mr Sunak to reveal the long-term strategy to repel Yemen’s Houthis if their attacks on ships do not end.

He also said: “It is quite clear that this House should have been recalled. It is what the public would have expected and I would urge him to do better in future.”

But Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) said: “It would be utterly against the national interest and indeed the security interests of the world for the British Prime Minister to be hobbled in the decisions he makes about taking military action by the need to consult in advance.”

Mr Sunak replied: “In this case it was necessary to strike with speed and protect the security of the operations and I believe that is in accordance with the convention and indeed precedent in these matters.

“I believe that he’s right that the Government does need to protect the security and interests of the United Kingdom. That means sometimes you do have to act decisively, quickly and securely and fundamentally we need to maintain the prerogative powers that allow the executive to act in such emergencies.

“But of course I am responsible for those decisions, I do not take them lightly and Parliament is responsible for holding me to account for them.”

Elsewhere in the Commons session, Labour MP Zarah Sultana (Coventry South) said: “Past mistakes in the Middle East should have taught this House that military interventions starting out as limited can quickly escalate, risking a sequence of events far larger and more terrible and risk even dragging us into war.

“It is for this reason, according to reports in The Times, that Foreign Office officials were, and I quote, incredibly nervous about last week’s military assault in Yemen.

“Driving the region’s instability is Israel’s horrifying assault on Gaza, which has now lasted more than 100 days.

“So rather than giving Israel the green light to continue its brutal bombardment on Gaza and risking a wider conflict, will the Prime Minister seek to de-escalate the situation and call for an immediate ceasefire?”

Mr Sunak replied: “Perhaps the honourable lady would do well to call on Hamas and the Houthis to de-escalate the situation.”

Ms Sultana could be heard shouting: “Shame on you.”

Conservative former minister Andrew Percy said: “Too many people give a free pass to the terrorists who perpetrated the worst murder of Jews and we’ve just seen an example of that, just as we saw examples of that on our streets this weekend where people screamed ‘Yemen, Yemen turn another ship around’ – completely unacceptable.”

Mr Sunak said the police have “extensive powers” to arrest those who incite violence or racial hatred, adding: “We keep all laws under review and we’re working with the police on whether we need to strengthen those powers.

“I have been absolutely clear that there must be zero tolerance for antisemitism and any forms of racism. We will not stand by when we see that happen and the police should make sure that those who do that face the full force of the law.”