Kuenssberg: The thorny politics of Houthi strikes for Sunak and Starmer

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UK
Laura Kuenssberg graphic

“To wake up and find out your country has bombed another country is serious indeed”.

As a former minister put it, you are not alone if you heard the headlines on the radio, or a news alert pinged on your phone saying the UK had carried out military strikes on Yemen and wondered, what on earth is going on?

So why did Prime Minister Rishi Sunak get the UK involved in the strikes on the Houthis? As so often in politics, the causes and the consequences are simple but complex too.

Here’s the straightforward part.

The Houthis, who control much of northern Yemen, have been attacking ships sailing through the Red Sea.

That route carries billions of pounds worth of oil, gas, consumer goods, the “stuff” we buy and consume every day.

If it’s too dangerous to make that voyage, ships literally have to go the long way round, adding days to their journeys, and cost and disruption to supply chains our economy can ill afford.

It might be thousands of miles away, but the costs would be felt right at home.

The UN had expressed serious concern over the attacks. And having made successive warnings, the US and the UK decided to strike to protect a vital trade route and uphold international law.

Serious, but simple.

Not so fast. The US and UK might say the attacks are not related to the raging conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, but that’s not how it’s seen by the other side.

The Houthis say their attacks on shipping are punishment for Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, claiming any ship destined for Israel or with Israeli links is a “legitimate target”, even though the Houthis have also attacked ships that have no links to Israel.

A group like the Houthis, that calls for the destruction of Israel, wants to be part of the wider war.

Add to that, the UK has, for years, supported a Saudi-led coalition bombing the Houthis in Yemen after the group took control of parts of the country from the internationally recognised government.

UK weapons have been used by the coalition, there have been thousands of civilian casualties, and the Saudis have been accused of breaching international law.

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More on the US-UK strikes in Yemen

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In the past couple of years there has been progress towards a settlement of sorts, but it remains one of the poorest countries in the world, broken by years of conflict, shortages of food, water, and violence.

It is well worth a look at my colleague Orla Guerin’s reporting from the country in the summer.

And here is the even more complicated part.

The Houthis are allies of Iran, which has been backing them with weapons and expertise, their links growing stronger long before the latest conflict. It is Iranian drones and missiles that the Houthis are using against international shipping.

Iran, with its links to Russia and China, has long vied for influence in the Middle East region, with its bitter rival Saudi Arabia, which has links to the US and Western powers. This is not just about a few ships in the Red Sea.

For Rishi Sunak therefore, the main reason to get involved was clear, but the consequences may be much more murky.

RAF Typhoon

MOD

If the Houthi’s attacks continue, a precedent has been set and it is hard for the UK not to strike again.

For how long is the government prepared to continue? How ready is it for an escalation in the wider war?

How will ministers grapple with the impression that by striking the Houthis, they have picked a side in the wider Middle East conflict?

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A senior MP says the action must come with a “more robust message” for Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu to counter that impression.

A former Cabinet minister told me the UK must “make sure the Houthis get a very bloody nose and Iran sees it; strengthen the international coalition, and confirm our intention to stay there; push Israel for a swift plan for post Gaza and encourage the Abraham Accords project in a way we have sadly not done so far”.

The Abraham Accords were agreements to normalise relations between Israel and Arab countries – not a comprehensive peace plan, but diplomatic moves nonetheless.

And while prime ministers sometimes thrive on the influence foreign interventions can bring, failed actions can consume huge amounts of political time, energy, and reputation.

Yemen demonstrations

Getty Images

There is no strong resistance from the normally extremely grumpy Conservative backbenches on the decision to take military action.

But Rishi Sunak will be pushed on what comes next when he stands up to deliver a statement in the Commons on Monday.

As the Conservative former minister Neil O’Brien, no enemy of Number 10, said this week: “Given our main interventions of the last 25 years have been failures, let’s be clear up front – what counts as success, realistically, how far would we need to go to achieve this? How will we avoid being dragged into something we don’t want?”

The UK did not have to take part.

The former minister ponders if Rishi Sunak would have decided to launch UK strikes were it not for the experience of his newish foreign secretary, telling me: “I see David Cameron’s hand playing in here – certainly he has the experience, and there is no way [former foreign secretary] James Cleverly would be able to give this level of advice.”

The US carried out strikes on the Houthis on its own in 2016, and indeed, this morning.

Might it have been different this time?

We’ll have Lord Cameron live in the studio on the programme on Sunday to discuss it.

The military action is instinctively trickier territory for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

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Labour nerves still jangle over what went so terribly wrong in Iraq, even after all these years.

The Labour leadership has already run into unhappiness over its position on Gaza, stopping short of calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Deep concern for Palestinians continues to be a binding motivation for swathes of Labour MPs and activists.

Keir Starmer was briefed by Downing Street on Thursday’s air strikes, and backed them on the understanding that they were limited, and targeted, and noting that the UK was not in control of the timing.

But for a strand of Labour MPs on the left of the party this goes against the grain.

Starmer’s allies don’t consider this a particular problem for the public.

Indeed he is only too happy to contrast himself with predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and his former tribe – MPs like John McDonnell and Diane Abbott and the campaign group Momentum.

But if the strikes continue or expand and he continues to back them, he risks riling a larger group in the party.

And there is a tension with Starmer’s own previous position too. During his 2020 Labour leadership campaign, he proposed a law to require a Commons vote on military action before it took place.

Keir Starmer will also be with us on Sunday morning for his New Year interview.

Is backing this action without a vote in Parliament another example of the Labour leader ditching his past promises as he edges closer to power?

His critics, inside and outside the Labour Party, will be all too eager to leap on that.

The agonies at Westminster over holding a vote can look like an example of MPs’ focusing on their own neighbourhood at the expense of the bigger picture.

I’m not suggesting MPs’ voices don’t matter, or that Parliament should not have a say on the most serious decisions any government can make.

But, at the same time, I don’t know a single senior UK politician who would, in office, in the real world, give up the power, known as the Royal Prerogative, to take military action without the overt permission of Parliament.

The truth is it is a convention to consult Parliament, but not a law, whatever a younger Keir Starmer proposed.

David Cameron

HoC

And holding a vote, or not holding a vote, may not be a guarantee of success or failure, whether military or political.

There was no vote on sending troops to Afghanistan in 2001. There was a vote on the war in Iraq in 2003. David Cameron lost a vote on taking action in Syria in 2013 so did not proceed, telling MPs: “I get it”. Theresa May did not ask MPs before a strike on that country in 2018.

So if you woke up on Friday morning wondering what on earth was going on the answer is indeed, it’s both simple and complicated.

The decision taken by Rishi Sunak was both obvious and risky. Keir Starmer’s decision to back it was too.

The prime minister, and the Labour leader who sees himself as the prime-minister-in-waiting, are, like all Western leaders in 2024, grappling with a world where other dominant countries are less attached to conventional international rules.

Add to that the possible return, by the end of the year, of a US president who relishes busting those conventions too.

A confidant of Rishi Sunak recently told me they were increasingly realising that government is nearly always a choice between two unappealing options.

In this election year most of our votes, most of our political conversations will be shaped by the old reality that all politics is local.

But the past few days shows what is global is vital to our politics too.

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