(The Guardian) MPs have called for tougher safeguards to be introduced to prevent a prime minister taking the country to war without adequate cabinet consultation.
The Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee said a key finding of the Chilcot inquiry into the run-up to the Iraq war, regarding lack of cabinet discussion, had not been acted upon. Its report says the cabinet secretary must be given more power to act if a prime minister decides to take action without properly consulting the cabinet.
“In 2002, Tony Blair promised George Bush that ‘I will be with you, whatever’, committing the UK to war in Iraq without consulting the foreign and defence secretaries, let alone the rest of the cabinet. Fifteen years later, there are still no safeguards in place within the government to prevent a prime minister acting so recklessly again,” said the committee’s chairman, the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin.
The report says that, although the cabinet secretary is personally responsible for making sure scrutiny of important decisions happens in line with the rules in the cabinet manual, their only resort is to resign if a prime minister decides to ignore their advice.
The MPs recommended that this situation should be changed so the cabinet secretary could ask the prime minister for a written ministerial direction to ignore the normal decision-making process and then be able to decide whether to make the situation known to parliament.
“If the cabinet secretary asks for such a direction, it should be at his or her discretion whether this direction should be made immediately known to parliament, or, in matters relating to national security, notified to nominated independent privy counsellors and released to parliament later. Such a mechanism would dispel any doubt about the cabinet secretary’s duty to ensure proper decision-making,” the committee’s report said.
While Jenkin said Theresa May had “assiduously used cabinet and its committees” and that the committee had confidence in the cabinet secretary, “this is no guarantee for the future”. He said: “It’s therefore a perfect time to introduce such a safeguard, when the system is working well, not to wait for another catastrophic failure.
“Our proposal is modest, and has the support of many former senior civil servants. We expect the government to consider it seriously.”
Earlier this year, May faced criticism from MPs for taking the decision to launch airstrikes on Syrian regime targets without asking parliament to vote on the issue. May said the intervention was “legally and morally right” and necessary to prevent “further human suffering” after she said clear evidence emerged that the Assad regime was behind chemical weapons attacks.
“We have always been clear that the government has the right to act quickly in the national interest,” May told the Commons. “I am absolutely clear that it is parliament’s responsibility to hold me to account for such decisions but it is my responsibility as prime minister to make these decisions.”
The report also called for the ministerial code to be updated to set out a list of matters that would normally be subject to collective agreement.
A government spokesman said: “The government will consider the report and respond in the normal manner. Ministers are accountable to parliament and civil servants accountable to ministers. Blurring these lines would risk undermining existing lines of accountability.
“The cabinet secretary supports the prime minister and the cabinet, helping to ensure there is robust system so the most important decisions are taken on a collective basis, ensuring that key interests across government are taken into account.”