MPs will not be recalled to Parliament despite deepening crisis, writes Graeme Demianyk.
They call summer “silly season”. The time of year when news stories morph into something different. The political drum-beat peters out as MPs break for recess. Schools are on holiday, so too professionals, factories and vast swathes of the public sector. So nothing to report, or so the theory goes.
Yet the usual summer diet of shark spottings off the Cornwall coast, whooping students on exam results day and minor political scuffles being blown out of all proportion have been superseded by an extraordinary run of international events.
It started with the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Hundreds of civilians, mainly Palestinian, were killed in what critics labelled a “disproportionate” response to Hamas attacks. Defenders argued the sole aim of Hamas was to eradicate Israel.
Mutterings from backbenchers that Parliament should be recalled were getting loud. Then a Government minister resigned. Baroness Warsi quit the Foreign Office, saying the Government’s policy on the crisis in Gaza is “morally indefensible”.
“After four weeks of a conflict more than a quarter of the Gazan population displaced, nearly two thousand people killed, never mind 400 innocent children killed – we still cannot find the words to say we condemn this and that we feel that this action has been disproportionate,” said the first female Muslim cabinet minister.
The Middle East appeared to be crumbling elsewhere too, more specifically in Iraq. The rise of the brutal Islamic State (Isis) jihadists was underlined when 45,000 members of the Yazidi religious minority were trapped on a remote desert mountaintop. They were encircled by fighters vowing to kill any who did not convert to Islam. Again, a clamour for a British response and MPs to return to Westminster to debate Britain’s strategy in the region. “These are brother and sister Christians and this is happening to them in no small part because of our record in Iraq,” said Conservative MP Conor Burns.
US air strikes and Kurdish forces fighting jihadists succeeded in beating back the Isis forces. Until that point, Britain’s involvement in northern Iraq was limited to humanitarian efforts – dropping supplies of water and solar lanterns from RAF C130 Hercules aircraft. But involvement was intensifying. The Government revealed it was prepared to supply weapons directly to the Kurdish if they needed it.
Still, with the appetite for a foreign conflict virtually zero among the British public, there would be no British “boots on the ground”. So no material change in policy.
The Prime Minister went on holiday for a second time. He had already been forced to return from Portugal as the Iraq crisis deepened. But he made clear just because he was in the Westcountry didn’t mean he wasn’t on top of things. “I am always within a few feet of a BlackBerry and an ability to manage things should they need to be managed,” he told journalists.
Barack Obama, taking a much bigger role in Israel and Iraq, was relaxed enough to do something similar. He went Martha’s Vineyard, “a playground for the wealthy and well-connected”, which drew different criticism in the US than that levelled at Mr Cameron, with one newspaper pointing out the British Prime Minister had been on 25 holidays since 2010.
But neither got too comfortable. On Tuesday night, a video showing an Islamic jihadist with a British accent beheading American journalist James Foley emerged. To many, it felt like a pivotal moment. Mr Cameron swiftly returned to London, and described the “act of murder” as barbaric. But no. The line remained the same: no combat troops to go to Iraq or Syria.
The voices calling for Parliament to be reconvened continued. In Devon and Cornwall alone, Totnes Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston condemned the “tactic of medieval barbarism to create their dystopic caliphate”, which can “only be countered by multi-national lethal force”.
St Ives Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George was of a similar mind: “Would we alter Commons business to debate Iraq and Gaza if the House were sitting? I think so.”
It is instructive to look at the last time Parliament was recalled, when MPs last August voted against UK involvement in a US-led bombardment of Syria after hundreds of civilians were gassed to death. The ghosts of the Iraq war, an unpopular, protracted foreign conflict, loomed large. Labour opposition effectively struck it out.
For the Government to recall Parliament they would need to be proposing a new, fundamentally different strategy. Instead, they continue to agonise. Even then, they would need to know it would pass a vote. They would not want to be rebuffed again. With doubt, we get “mission creep” and a sense of confusion.
Graeme Demianyk is London Editor of the Western Morning News