The prime minister and her close aides have tried to take the same methodical, step-by-step approach to calibrating Britain’s response to the Douma attack that they deployed after the Salisbury poisoning – though that is far harder to achieve when action is likely to be led by the erratic Donald Trump.
Despite May’s natural caution and her tendency to demand evidence before acting, she is strongly of the view that the “rules-based global order”, as she calls it, must be upheld. She regards limited military action as a way of underlining the international prohibition on chemical weapons, by ensuring their use does not go unchallenged.
Johnson said in February, before the latest attack, that he would support “limited action” against Syria to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the use of chemical weapons. A year ago, Johnson expended considerable diplomatic capital on a failed attempt to persuade the UK’s G7 counterparts to back targeted sanctions, and he accused Russia of being a “lifeline for the murderous Syrian regime”.
Colleagues of the mild-mannered former chief whip have been taken aback in recent months by his transformation into a hawk since he replaced Michael Fallon as defence secretary. He has also adopted a strident tone against Russia in particular, warning that “thousands and thousands” of people in the UK could be killed in an attack on energy infrastructure, and telling the Russians after the Skripal attack to “go away and shut up”. He is unlikely to try to block military action.
The environment secretary is among the most hawkish members of the cabinet, describing himself as being “incredibly emotional about the subject” after MPs voted against military action in Syria in 2013. Gove shouted, “Disgrace, disgrace!” across the Commons chamber and accused the then shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, of “appeasing” Assad. “Labour MPs celebrating as children had been killed by a ruthless dictator, I’m afraid, got to me,” Gove said afterwards.
Davis has a history of scepticism about intervention in Syria, which he voted against in 2013. On Thursday the Brexit secretary said he had been concerned that there was not enough evidence to pin chemical weapons attacks on Assad, nor an adequate plan for what would happen after an intervention. But he said he had been assured by the prime minister that those concerns would be answered, paving the way for May’s most dovish minister to give his support.
A former chair of Stop the War, Corbyn is a stalwart of the antiwar left, opposing conflict not just in Iraq, Libya and Syria but also in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Last year he said there had been no “just war” since 1945 and on Thursday he said: “More bombing, more killing, more war will not save life.” He is understood to be seeking a security briefing – on privy councillor terms – on the latest from Syria, but it is near certain that he will oppose action regardless.
As the business secretary in the coalition government, Cable supported intervention in 2013. He has said he is “willing to be persuaded again, although it’s now much more complex” because of Trump and Russia. In an email to Liberal Democrat members about a possible Commons vote, he set three tests for backing action: full disclosure of evidence against Syria by the government, clear objectives for intervention and response, and intervention only as part of a multilateral approach.
The Tory chair of the cross-party foreign affairs select committee is a former soldier who fought in Iraq, and he has a long record of advocating intervention in Syria. He does not believe May must seek a mandate from the Commons, arguing that she can act on the royal prerogative. He has said intervention is essential to restore the taboo against using chemical weapons and to prevent their deployment becoming normalised.
The SNP leader has said it would be “an absolute disgrace” and “quite unacceptable” for May to decide on intervention without a vote in parliament. “May does not have a mandate. We are a parliament of minorities and she has got to respect that,” he said. He argues that weapons inspectors and the WHO should be given time to report their findings so that any intervention is justified by evidence. Like Corbyn, Blackford is understood to be seeking a briefing on privy counsellor terms.
McGovern, who co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Syria, has spoken passionately in the Commons about Syria, taking up the reins from her friend Jo Cox, the murdered Labour MP, who was a former aid worker. McGovern is one of a significant number of Labour MPs who may be persuaded to back military action if there is a vote in parliament. Others who have spoken out about the horrors in Syria in recent days include Ruth Smeeth, John Woodcock and Wes Streeting, though all would want a debate in parliament.
Goldsmith has long been sceptical of military action against the Assad regime. Just before the Commons showdown in 2013 he said airstrikes would be “utter madness”, but he voted for them anyway, saying the motion had been watered down. Two years later he backed airstrikes against Islamic State, but he remains wary of targeting the Syrian authorities. “The government needs to explain who is strengthened if and when Assad is weakened,” he tweeted. Other Tory MPs cautious about intervention include Bob Seely and Julian Lewis.