Tory discomfort over Boris Johnson's Syria statement

John Pienaar
Deputy political editor
@JPonpoliticson Twitter

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It's really rather easy to see why Boris Johnson believes a hypothetical US request for British help in bombing Syria might be hard to turn down.

It's far less easy to see why a British foreign secretary might choose the early stages of a general election campaign to speculate on the matter aloud.

Unless, of course, you remind yourself that the foreign secretary and Boris Johnson happen to be the same man.

Asked - just theoretically, you understand - whether UK missiles might fly alongside American ones in a future strike on Syria if President Assad's blamed for another chemical attack on his own people, a more, well, normal minister; a politician more sensitive to the risks of giving interesting answers to direct questions, would have said little or nothing.

Might even have dismissed the question as "hypothetical".

That was Theresa May's choice of word. It's now the official line.

David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, was the latest minister to be challenged in the aftermath of Boris Johnson's remarks.

He said: "There's no option on the table at the moment to do anything in Syria. We've got six weeks when we're not sitting in Parliament.

"But when an option comes we'll look at it properly."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The US fired 59 cruise missiles at the Shayrat airbase

He added: "The US is an ally of ours. If they come and ask for help we'll look at it as we always do with a sympathetic eye."

So, the approved line goes so far as to suggest an inclination in government to help the US out when, and if, necessary.

But the operative word here is "if". And ministers seem not to be going out of their way to encourage closer interrogation.

Conservative ministers are keen to keep as close alongside the Trump administration as possible.

Leaving aside the UK government's keenness to work up a closer trading relationship.

And leaving aside the reports that Britain may be falling behind the EU in the queue for a trade deal (and these things might, arguably, be usefully kept in mind), Britain has long wished to act as a close partner to America in matters of global security.

Remember, Mrs May was part of the Cabinet that tried, and failed, to win Parliamentary approval for military action against the Assad regime after the chemical attack in 2013, long before a Trump administration, and for that matter, Brexit, were considered serious possibilities.

But did the foreign secretary need to get this debate started now, and in the way he did?

After all, the chances of nerve-agents being rained so horribly on innocent Syrian men, women and children anytime soon must surely seem limited.

The White House has been clear it has no plan for further action.

Encouraging speculation about British involvement in military action against Assad - let alone answering the question with a clear yes - could only open tricky questions of Parliamentary accountability and UN involvement, which is exactly what has happened.

A more cautious minister, Theresa May, say, might calculate that these issues and the case for military action itself divide public opinion. And they, or she, would be right.

Rightly or wrongly, Conservatives are daring to dream optimistically of an election victory on a huge scale.

If they're right, the prime minister need not fear the verdict of the Commons on a hypothetical future request to support US military action.

Just now, Theresa May, being a naturally cautious politician, is disinclined to pick unnecessary arguments with sections of the British voting public.

Boris Johnson is different. He tends to err on the side of being interesting.

What he said was certainly interesting. From a conventional point of view at election time - and, I suspect we may assume Theresa May's - he erred in saying it now.

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