Rishi Sunak says UK acted in ‘self-defence’ with Yemen airstrikes

London: The prime minister has said the UK acted in “self-defence” with military strikes in Yemen intended to “de-escalate tensions and restore stability to the region”, as he faced calls for greater parliamentary scrutiny.

Speaking from Ukraine, Rishi Sunak said that in the face of this aggression “we will always stand up for the rule of law” after a series of attacks by Houthi rebels on shipping in the Red Sea.

However, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party and the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have urged the prime minister to recall parliament to seek approval for the military assault, while warning about the risk of escalation in the Middle East. Labour called for the legal advice in relation to the strikes to be published.

Sunak said he would make a statement to MPs on Monday about “limited and necessary” military strikes in Yemen. Grant Shapps, the defence secretary, briefed MPs on a call on Friday but did not take any questions.

A senior Conservative, David Davis, said it appeared to be “reasonable” self-defence but that if the UK government intended to widen and intensify the military action in an aggressive way, then the prime minister ought to seek parliamentary approval with a vote of MPs.

“In the event that they want to do a Libya- or Syria-type thing, that has to be preceded by a proper debate and authorisation by the House of Commons. There is of course a risk of escalation. If they up the ante and you have to hit what they’re upping the ante with, that’s still defensive,” Davis said.

“But if, on the other hand, they want to take major action, let’s say to choke off Iranian supply lines, because we know that’s Iranian, that’s parliament first. This has changed in modern times … It is not that you don’t do it because of the threat of escalation. The test is whether it’s aggressive action.”

The military action was backed across the Conservative party and by the Labour frontbench, with Keir Starmer saying his party was “fully supportive” of the action.

Asked how concerned he was that MPs would not have the opportunity to debate the strikes until Monday, Starmer told broadcasters on a visit in Bury in Greater Manchester: “I want the prime minister to make a statement as soon as possible, but the principle of taking action against the Houthi rebels is really important.”

Malcolm Rifkind, a Conservative former foreign secretary, now chair of the Audere Group, said there had been a risk that without any defensive action the Houthis would have accelerated their attacks.

“They’ve chosen a whole pattern of behaviour which has been attacking, as it were, noncombatant ships – they haven’t been attacking Israeli targets. They’ve been attacking normal commercial shipping, going about its normal business. And they’ve done so with significant damage,” Rifkind said.

“If action was not being taken there is no reason why the Houthis would not have continued doing this, and indeed accelerated and increased it in a significant way.”

Alistair Burt, another Conservative former Foreign Office minister, said: “I don’t think we have moved into a convention where every military action needs the prior approval of parliament. I think we have got a convention where, if you’re going to commit significant numbers of ground troops, then that is likely to need parliamentary sanction. But it has always been the case that the government has been able to take executive action to deal with an imminent threat and then be accountable to parliament afterwards, and I think that’s entirely proper.”

Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons speaker, had said MPs should be updated “at the earliest possible opportunity” and that he would recall parliament at the weekend if needed, but the prime minister said this was not required.

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In a TV clip recorded in Kyiv before talks with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Sunak said inaction over the attacks on ships by Houthi rebels, including a barrage seemingly aimed at western warships, risked destabilising the global economy.

“Over the last month, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea that’s putting innocent lives at risk,” Sunak said. “It’s disrupting the global economy, and it’s also destabilising the region. And in that time we’ve also seen the single biggest attack on a British navy warship that we’ve seen in decades.”

Sunak described the US-led strike as “limited and necessary action in response to a specific threat in self-defence”, which was intended to “degrade and disrupt Houthi capability”.

Asked what would happen if the strikes did not curb Houthi attacks on shipping, Sunak replied: “Initial indications are that those strikes have been successful. We’ll continue to monitor the situation. But it’s clear that this type of behaviour can’t be met without a response.”

The Commons ended its business for the week on Thursday and is not due to reconvene before Monday afternoon. MPs can be recalled to sit over weekends if there is an urgent matter to consider. So far the Lib Dems and the SNP have called for MPs to sit over the weekend.

Speaking in Kyiv, Sunak said an early recall was not needed. “If you look at similar situations in 2015 and 2018, a statement was made to parliament after the action and that’s what I will be doing on Monday – I’ll be making a full statement in parliament and taking questions.”

Layla Moran, the Lib Dems’ foreign affairs spokesperson, said there was a need for MPs to have a say. “Parliament should not be bypassed,” she said. “Rishi Sunak must announce a retrospective vote in the House of Commons on these strikes and recall parliament this weekend.

“We remain very concerned about the Houthis’ attacks. But that makes it all the more important to ensure that MPs are not silenced on the important issue of military action.”

The strikes on Thursday night were the first to be launched against Houthi forces since they started targeting shipping in the Red Sea, a key international trade route.

The Ministry of Defence said four Royal Air Force jets struck two Houthi facilities that were involved in the targeting of HMS Diamond and US navy vessels on Tuesday. One was a site in Bani, in the country’s north-west, and the other was the Abs airfield, near the west coast. The US air force said it struck more than 60 targets at 16 sites in Yemen.

The UK and US had non-operational support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands.