Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): We make no more important decision in this House than to give permission to our armed forces to unleash some of their formidable arsenal. We should only do so if we feel there is democratic consent for the aim and the purpose of the conflict, and we should do so only if it is legal so to do. In my adult lifetime in politics I think that we, as a country, have intervened too often. We have too often asked our armed forces to do things that armed forces alone cannot do. I am not against all intervention. Of course, when we had to liberate Kuwait or the Falkland Islands, they were noble aims. Our armed forces performed with great skill and bravery, and the British public were behind them. We must be very careful, however, not to inject them into a civil war where we do not know the languages, where we have uncertain sympathy for the cultures and the conflicting groups involved, and where the answer in the end has to be a political process in the country itself and not external force.
I therefore welcome strongly the three things the Government have set out. I welcome this debate and the fact that we will do things democratically. It is our job to speak for our constituents and, if there is to be military activity, to ensure that the British public will it—they certainly do not at the moment. I welcome very much the Government’s statement that we will not arm the rebels. That is huge progress and I support that fully.
Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that what we would like to hear from the Deputy Prime Minister when he sums up later is a clear statement that the Government believe that in all future cases military action—immediate external assault—will not be entered into unless this House has given its say-so first?
Mr Redwood: Of course I agree with that. Any sensible Government would do that, because what Government can commit our armed forces without the implicit or actual support of the House of Commons? That can be tested at any time, so no Government would be so foolish as to try and proceed without it.
Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend just go a bit further and agree that anybody going through the Government Lobby tonight is not giving their approval for direct military intervention on behalf of the UK, and that the Deputy Prime Minister should make that very, very clear in his summing up tonight? There will be another vote.
Mr Redwood: I leave the Deputy Prime Minister to speak for himself and the Government.
The third thing I welcome is that the Government are not trying to influence the conflict. That is an important new development, although I am not sure how it marries with possible military intervention. If military intervention is planned, I presume that it will be against Assad and his forces and that, of course, would have some impact on the conflict. That impact might be in the direction that the Government and others wish to go, but they need to accept that there is a possible contradiction or ambiguity between their wish not to have an impact on the balance of forces in Syria and their wish to intervene over the issue of chemical weapons.
Everyone in the House shares the Government’s horror at the use of chemical weapons and the brutality shown, perhaps by the regime. It is quite possible that the regime used them. I agree with right hon. and hon. Members from both sides who have pointed out that there have also been atrocities and horrors enough without chemical weapons—those should also shock our consciences and worry our emotions, and they do.
Given the understandable wish to respond to the use of horror weapons, we need to ask whether the Government could undertake, or assist others to undertake, a military intervention that would fulfil the purpose. That should be the only question. Of course I understand that the Government cannot come to the House and debate a series of targets with us in advance—that would be folly. However, I hope that the House can help steer Ministers to ask the right questions of their advisers about whether there is any type of military intervention that could make the position better rather than worse.
The military experts to whom I have talked say that the last thing we want to do is shower down bombs or cruise missiles on stocks of chemical weapons; that would degrade them, but could let them out as well. It would be a dreadful tragedy if, in an attempt to stop, by destruction, the use of chemical weapons, we infected people in the surrounding areas. That does not sound like a good idea. Bombing the factories might have a similar consequence, although perhaps the risk would not be as great as bombing the stocks of chemical weapons.
Is the idea to bomb the soldiers and their commanders who might use the weapons? That could be a way. However, we would have to ask the Government how many soldiers and officers we would need to kill to guarantee more or less that Assad would not use the weapons again. I fear that the answer might be very many, given that we are dealing with someone as mad and bad as Assad. Would we want to go that far? Are we sure that it would work?
Is the idea to bomb a load of buildings, preferably when people were not in them, so that we destroyed the command headquarters or military installations? That would be possible; western forces have done such things in other situations, normally as preparation for invasion. Again, however, how many would we need to bomb to make sure that Assad never used chemical weapons again?
I hope that the Government will think very carefully about the issues. If they wish to persuade the British people, who are mightily sceptical about our ability to find the right military response to stop Assad and his horrors, they need to come up with some answers privately and find the language to explain to Members, and the public we represent, why they have every confidence that we can achieve the noble aim of stopping Assad from using chemical weapons.
I wish the Government well. If they really can come up with a way of stopping Assad murdering his own people, nobody will be happier than me. Everyone in the House would be extremely happy. But the Government have to understand the scepticism of the British people. Assad is mad and bad and it will not be easy to stop him. I fear that we will not be able to do it in a half-hearted manner with a few cruise missiles in the hope that he will not retaliate.