Allowing France to replace Britain in Washington’s affections is not something any British prime minister wants, writes Con Coughlin
Cautious May must factor UK parliament's disapproval of Trump into Syria decision
For an innately cautious politician like Theresa May, how she responds to the Syrian crisis could become the British Prime Minister’s defining moment.
Ever since she came to office in the summer of 2016 in the aftermath of the British referendum on membership of the EU, Mrs May has made it her particular speciality to avoid making public her views on major issues.
On the EU, for example, Mrs May’s somewhat Delphic remark, “Brexit means Brexit” aptly illustrates her deliberately vague position on the most important political issue in modern British history. As someone who campaigned to retain EU membership, and now finds herself in charge of a government that is determined to break with Brussels, Mrs May no doubt regards her ambivalence as being vital to her survival in office, especially as she heads a minority government.
But Mrs May’s deliberate opaqueness on this and other pressing issues often makes it difficult to read her preferred direction of travel.
Which is why the Syrian crisis, and the whole debate over Britain’s participation in military action against the Assad regime, has forced Mrs May out of her political comfort zone and compelled her, for once, to provide some decisive leadership.
In fairness to Mrs May, she had already started to adopt a more assertive leadership style after last month’s Salisbury poisoning, when Russian intelligence agents were accused of using a nerve agent to assassinate a defector.
Mrs May’s uncompromising response to the first chemical weapons attack on European soil since the end of the Second World War has won her many plaudits, in particular her remarkable diplomatic achievement in persuading dozens of countries and global institutions to support the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats by way of retaliation.
Now we are seeing hints of the same steely resolve in her response to the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus.
Compared with handling the Salisbury attack, responding to international calls to retaliate against the Assad regime is a far more challenging undertaking for Mrs May, not least because it is the first time she has been asked to involve Britain in military action since taking office.
She is not, by temperament, the kind of person who is naturally inclined to assuming a global leadership role. Her preferred modus operandi is working behind the scenes with allies to form a consensus, thereby giving herself political cover if anything goes wrong.
But the Syrian chemical weapons attack means that, on this occasion, she has nowhere to hide.
Having stirred up an international outcry over the use of chemical weapons on the streets of Britain, she can hardly turn her back when they are used in the Damascus suburbs.
Another key factor that has forced Mrs May’s hand with regard to Syria has been the robust response of French President Emmanuel Macron, who was quick to declare his support for military action once it became clear that the Trump administration was preparing for a fresh round of hostilities with the Assad regime.
Mr Macron was reportedly so keen to make his mark with the White House that he even offered to get the French military to undertake the entire military response on behalf of the Americans.
Such grandstanding on the part of the French president will make for uncomfortable reading in Downing Street, which likes to think of itself as being the first port of call for an American president weighing up his response to a global crisis.
But with Britain preparing to leave the EU, Washington can no longer count on London to persuade the Europeans to do the right thing, which has generally been the American approach since the end of the Cold War. So talking to France instead, which, after Britain, has Europe’s largest military capability, makes sense to the Americans.
Allowing France to replace Britain in Washington’s affections, though, is not something any British prime minister wants, and the speed with which Mrs May has thrown away her customary caution and embraced American calls for action against Mr Al Assad therefore needs to be seen in the context of her desire to maintain Britain’s traditional position at the top table of American policy-making.
Mrs May’s support for the Trump administration is not without risk, particularly in Britain where she is likely to experience stiff resistance from opposition MPs in parliament.
Mrs May could find herself in difficulty if, as seems likely, she decides to authorise military action without first receiving parliamentary backing. While she is under no constitutional obligation to allow MPs a vote, in recent years a precedent has been set whereby the Commons voted on whether or not to commit British forces to action.
Parliament was first granted the privilege by Tony Blair in 2003, when he needed political backing for the invasion of Iraq. But in 2013 David Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat when he lost a Commons vote to back military action in Syria.
Donald Trump is unpopular among British MPs and Mrs May will be well aware that – without a majority in Parliament – she could easily suffer the same fate as Mr Cameron if she put the issue of launching air strikes against the Assad regime before the Commons.
But without a Commons vote, she alone will have to take full responsibility for attacking Syria, a burden that could come back to haunt her.
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor